Archive for the ‘Semiotics’ Category

Last week when I read the NY times article about the discovery of the 45,000 year old cave drawings I was reminded of the Zhou Brothers.

Let us now consider

  • Cave paintings
  • Abstract Expressionism
  • The Zhou Brothers
  • corporate suits in the Chicago Loop

It’s interesting to speculate about the species of mammal depicted in this cave 45,000 years ago, but it’s the hand that captivates us, isn’t it.  It’s unimaginably far in the past and yet here it is, so immediate.

We’ve been fascinated by cave drawings since 1940, when eighteen-year-old Marcel Ravidat and his friends roamed through the woods in the Dordogne region in France, noticed a hole in the ground and crawled in. They discovered  a cave that came to be called the Lascaux Cave and turned out to have hundreds of drawings made about 17,000 years ago.


By the late 1940’s Abstract Expressionism was in full swing in New York.  In my readings I have never come across any artist working between 1940 and 1965 who claimed kinship with these ancestors that laid their hands on the rock wall, filled their cheeks with paint and blew.  But the kinship is there, literally, in the sense that we are all descended from those ancients who left their hand prints on cave walls.  To claim aesthetic kinship, however, would take a heavy hand on the Ouija board. Our Western aesthetic comes, not from cave paintings, but from the ancient Greeks, 500-400 BC.

Modernism is a rejection of these classical ideals.  In the 1940’s, as Harold Rosenberg said, “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” Abstract Expressionism is characterized by gesture, brushstroke and action.

These are passages from DeKooning paintings to illustrate gesture, brushstroke and action:


Introducing the Zhou Brothers.  The two Zhou brothers, born 1952 and 1957, emigrated from China to Chicago in 1986 and quickly became rich and famous.   They work as a doubles team in attacking a canvas.  A small painting can be a mere 4 x 4 feet.  But large is what they are known for, like this:

I have not seen this particular painting, but I have seen one of their large paintings in the lobby of a Chicago sky scraper.  How large?  Large, sky-scraper-lobby-large.

The corporate finance guy who forked out the money for that large Zhou Brothers painting must have peered deeply into the corporate CEO’s soul, if you’ll allow that word in this context.  Art buying at that scale is a gamble.  My theory is that two mythologies converged in the CEO’s soul:  the all-American sentimentality for things antique and that all-American can-do individualism. That would be, respectively, Neanderthal cave painting and Abstract Expressionism. The Zhou Brothers figured this out, just like that.

Next time I’m in Chicago I will find that Zhou Brothers painting and linger in the lobby to interview the people who walk through there every day.  Just one question, excuse me, sir,  what do you see in this painting, what jumps out at you, what do like best here, has your view of this painting changed over the years, what style of painting would you call this, what does it remind you of… sir?   Sir?


This video shows the Zhou Brothers at the White House where their painting referencing American presidents is given to a Chinese official.  In talking about the painting, they present themselves as manufacturers and calculating salesmen.  The dimensions of the painting are 68 x 86.  This is important, they tell us, because these are lucky numbers in Chinese culture. Also 86 is the country code!  The red line in the painting symbolizes “spirit and the hope for the future of the US.”

Really?  You’re painting in the 21st century, seducing us with this whiff of Abstract Expressionism and all the while you’re stuck in the symbolism of color, the kitsch belief in lucky numbers and the business of flattering politicians?

About cave paintings:




Henri Édouard Prosper Breuil  (1877 – 1961)

Lewis-Williams, David.  The Mind in the Cave, 2002

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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We have this painting at the National Gallery in Washington.

You may not believe this was painted in 1612. Surrounded by its Italian Renaissance neighbors, it stands out.  It is stunning.

What makes this image so distinct?

-the woman is fully clothed

-her clothing is not opulent

-she is not presenting herself

-she is turning her back to us

-she is absorbed in her music

-she has an interior life

-she is not a symbol or a saint

-this is not an illustration of Christian or Greek mythology

-this is a person

-there is no message, no moral, no lesson


Not only that, the composition is asymmetrical.  How did he get away with this?  In 1612!  In Rom!

The image engages us the way modern art engages us.

-the painter places the human figure off center

-half of the painting is a void, with the table cloth minimally suggested

-the foreshortened violin on the table points at us, as if to address us: hey you, you’re part of this.


When you walk through a museum you can spot a Gentileschi from a long distance.  He painted women unlike any of his contemporaries did.


Except his daughter, Artemisia Gentileschi, who was his student.


Orazio Gentileschi, 1563 Tuscany – 1639 London

Lute Player, 56-1/2 x 50-3/4, Natl Gal of Art, Washington DC, 1612-15


Find more of his paintings at:



All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.






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How long had she been perched on that thin branch?  When I saw her, I pulled up a chair and watched her sway in the wind for seventeen minutes.  During all that time she faced in one direction and vocalized almost constantly.   No other crow came near.  The wind picked up and she finally took off.

The radical otherness of birds is integral to their beauty and their value. They are always among us but never of us. Their indifference to us ought to serve as a chastening reminder that we’re not the measure of all things. The stories we tell about the past and imagine for the future are mental constructions that birds can do without. Birds live squarely in the present.  —Jonathan Franzen

While being fascinated by her for those seventeen minutes I realized how ignorant I was about crows.  I had read that they have a vocabulary of dozens of calls; that they socialize in groups; warn each other of approaching predators; gather in the place where a crow had died; visit mom’s tree after moving away; make tools and solve puzzles.  Still, I felt ignorant because I couldn’t interpret her call or any of the calls my neighborhood crows make.

As my brain was wallowing in ignorance, I reminded myself that most human brains are happy to fill in that gap of ignorance with myths, superstitions and symbols, all of it Kitsch.

The American philosopher Stanley Cavell said, there’s nothing human beings want more than to be something else.

Some of our myths shows humans with wings—being bird-like.  Voila, Angels, Cupid, Psyche–the epitome of Kitsch!

Why is it worth thinking about this?

Our ancestors slipped into this escape from ignorance into saccharine superstitions and symbols.  Look around you.  We’re still drowning in Kitsch.

As an artist you need to keep your Kitsch-detector turned way up.  When you’re working on a painting, a sculpture, a composition or a short story you have to scan your work repeatedly with that trusty Kitsch-detector.  Revise!  Revise!  It’s work. That’s why a work of art can take so long.

What I’m suggesting with this bird-in-a-tree-story is that you can keep the Kitsch-detector hooked on your belt at all times, even when you’re pacing through your quarantine house and casually looking out the window.

I didn’t want to anthropomorphize the crow when I started to write this post, but “it” seemed inappropriate for such an intelligent being.  Why did I choose “she” instead of “he?”  I like to think it was an arbitrary choice, but maybe I had a Kitsch moment and emotionally identified with “her.”


Stanley Cavell, 1926-2018


For the full essay by Jonathan Franzen:



For crows and myths:











All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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If you say, nice photo, I’ll say, thanks.  The afternoon sun does this refraction performance through my front door.  I can remember how I looked up from reading at my dining room table. I gasped and reached for my camera. These light effects don’t last long.

If you say, ohmygod that is awesome I want to make a painting of this, then…well, then, I’ll have to say, errmm, we need to talk.

The photo gives our attention a little jolt because it reminds us that in life there are these moments that we hardly notice because we’re preoccupied with our chores and plans.

But a painting duplicating the photo would be overdoing it.  It would be superimposing grandeur onto something subtle.

I sympathize with this impulse to paint a scene that moves you and makes you sigh, oh how beautiful.  You want to celebrate that, to dwell on it by translating every nuance and detail into paint on canvas.

But this experience of beauty does not translate.  What a shocking thing to say.  (We’ll talk about this some more, two or three posts hence, with the help of W.S. Merwin.)

Oscar Wilde said, “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.”

That’s also true of painting.  People who want to paint their deep, genuine feeling about beauty,  will produce–brace yourself!–things like this:

…and, of course, cats.


The word for this is Kitsch.



Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900

W.S. Merwin, 1927-2019


All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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It’s 1906.  Imagine these law-abiding citizens of Northern Europe, who dress well, behave politely and enjoy going to cultural events, like art exhibitions.  One Sunday afternoon they put on their hats and tell their coach man to take them to that new art exhibit in the hope of finding edification in high art.  They find themselves confronted by this.

André Derain was born near Paris in 1880.  He grew up in Victorian clutter, in rooms with flowered wallpaper; velvet tasseled curtains; heavy carved furniture; and gilded this and that.  His family was comfortably middle class. He had the means to travel.  When he came back from a trip to London, his family and friends must have eagerly awaited nice touristy paintings, like scenic post cards. Instead, he had this to show.

In 1906 nobody knew that this was the art of the future and that 100+ years later  people like us would paint our walls white so that nothing would distract us from contemplating the painting.

The critic Louis Vauxcelles called these artists –Derain, Matisse and Vlaminck—“Les Fauves,” which means “the wild beasts.”   To be called a wild beast was pretty close to being called an idiot.

Imagine what it took to paint like this at that time.  That’s all, just imagine that.

The Fauvist painters:

André Derain, 1880-1954

Henri Matisse, 1869-1954

Maurice de Vlaminck, 1876-1958

P.S.  Some of our contemporaries now want to make a quick buck by teaching you a formula: “How to paint Fauvist style.”  Such trash!   You can find this mindless how-to on Pinterest, for example.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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Even as a child, Soulage says, he liked black because it made the rest of the paper look all the more white.

When he was sixty, his paintings became all black, a black he calls outrenoir, which translates roughly as “beyond black.”

He doesn’t think of himself as painting with black paint, but with light.  The light reflects off the thick, textured black paint and that is what you see.  “I made these because I found that the light reflected by the black surface elicits certain emotions in me. These aren’t monochromes. The fact that light can come from the color which is supposedly the absence of light is already quite moving, and it is interesting to see how this happens.”

He was born December 24, 1919.  Approaching 101, he says he’s looking forward to more ideas to come to him.

The Musée Soulage, in Rodez , Southern France,  is devoted to his work.



I recommend the following links for more images of his work and of interviews with him:








Two days ago I was reminded of Pierre Soulage when I took the photo posted as “Not Levitating.”  When I framed the shot I saw the uncanny light that was coming through the front doors glass panel in late afternoon.  On the photo, which is unedited, the light “column” at the left appears so substantial that its weight equals that of the blue sphere, which would otherwise have to dominant the composition.



All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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Time to watch “Blow Up” again.


All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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If you plowed through those two pages from Fairfield Porter (in the last post), you noticed that his thinking has peaks of clarity and ruts of generalizations.

He says, the new American painting is “more accurately called non-objective than abstract.” That’s a peak. It’s a good distinction.  Whenever we hear painting described as “abstract” we should translate that as “non-objective.”  Thank you, Fairfield.

Then, on the second page, we have “art does not stand for something outside itself.”  That’s another peak.  Oh, thank you, thank you, Mr. Porter!!!!

The rest of that page is erudite theorizing that must have pleased his publisher.  This new non-objective art was shocking enough; the critical language had to break it gently to the public.    After all, everybody assumed that art had to represent something. It was a cultural given that it would be absurd to look at art that was so presumptuous as to stand on its own.  It took a while for the shock of the new to wear off.  But the shock did gradually dampen down and now Artspeak unabashedly talks about art as it is.

Here’s a review, chosen randomly, from last September’s Art in America.

The whole review describes the physical materials and how they were placed in the exhibit space. There’s no mention of symbolism, historical references or why anybody should go see this.

Yes, indeed, art does not stand for something outside itself, as Fairfield Porter said sixty years ago.  But I wonder if he would find this installation too challenging to look at. Too absurd?  Too hard to pay attention to?

Paying attention!  That’s the key. Paying attention to what’s actually in front of you is not so easy.

In the next few posts, let’s zoom in on this problem of paying attention. How hard can that be!? For example, if I say this image is art, can I say it does not stand for something outside itself?  That is, how hard can it be to pay attention to this image–as image?




All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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We’ve met Fairfield Porter (1907-1975)  before, back in August:


Surprisingly, while he was a hugely successful painter, Porter thought of himself primarily as an art critic.  His criticism was featured in Art Journal, which was started in 1941.  The book,  Art in its Own Terms, is a selection of his critical writings, edited by the itchingly named Rackstraw Downes. I scratched around in these pages and found some insights about Artspeak, then and now.

In the 1940’s New York Abstract Expressionism had hit America’s culture fan with shocking force. It must have felt like a threat to common decency, meaning American decency. In 1959, for example, the popular, middle-brow Life Magazine called Jackson Pollack “Jack the Dripper.” But fairly high-brow readers were also puzzled. These were the cultured-and-curious who would have read Art Journal to find some guiding thread through this new art mess.

Who better for the job than someone who knew art from within, a painter who could convincingly use the word “soul” and still could articulate his way through the maze of these new art-isms.

I imagine that if you could memorize a few of Porter’s sentences and quote them at the next cocktail party (it was the 50’s), you would be assured that you looked as smart as your suede pumps.

Who could challenge a quote like, “Polish artists admire American painting, and Russian art circles take time to express disapproval”?  If you said “Picasso derives from Toulouse-Lautrec,” would the hostess whip out a screen and a Kodak Carousel complete with relevant slides so that you could demonstrate exactly what you were talking about?  She would not. She would pour you more champagne, darling, aren’t you clever.

Was Porter ever asked to give a slide show at the 92nd Street Y to illuminate his generalities?  Today he would be asked. Today he would be expected to present split screen comparisons and be specific about what he was comparing to what.  By the time of the Q&A people would have fact-checked his historical claims and editorial generalities.

Here’s a split screen for the claim that Picasso derives from Toulouse-Lautrec.  He would have some splainin’ to do, wouldn’t he.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1864-1901

Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973

Fairfield Porter, 1907-1975

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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This article appeared in The Conversation on October 9, 2020. The author is Sally Hickson, Associate Professor, Art History, University of Guelph 

After this week’s vice-presidential debate in the United States, the fly that landed on Vice-President Mike Pence’s head was more of a sensation than the details of the debate — at least on social media. The fly has already been immortalized as a Biden/Harris fly swatter (sorry, they’re all sold out) and sparked a Halloween costume.

In many circumstances, flies are unremarkable. That’s probably why a French word for spy is connected to the same word for fly, mouche. When a fly becomes famous, it’s worth wondering why.

Flies have long held symbolic meaning in the history of art. In portraits made in Renaissance Europe, the presence of a fly symbolizes the transience of human life (buzzbuzzpfft!). In the great scheme of things, our lives are no longer than that of a fly. For me as an art historian, the fly was a moment to reflect not only on the history of flies in western painting, but to begin considering what the long history of this symbolism may reveal about why the fly generated so much buzz.

Humility, impermanence, illusion

Take, for example, an extraordinary little painting known today as Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family, painted in about 1470 by an artist from the German (Swabian) School, now in the National Gallery in London. Her elaborate white head covering highlights a perfect little fly, that’s settled on her just to remind us that our life, like hers, is impermanent.

The corollary is that we’re supposed to do the best we can with the time we’ve got. When it comes to time and eternity, as painter and poet William Blake wrote: “Am not I / A fly like thee? / Or art not thou / A man like me?” The fly is a little reminder of humility.

Painters could also include a fly to draw attention to themselves, demonstrating with their “trompe-l’oeil” (deceiving the eye) tricks that they could paint in a manner that seemed so real, a viewer of the portrait would be tempted to try to swat the fly away. The 16th-century Italian painter Giorgio Vasari, biographer of Italian Renaissance artists, tells a story about the painter Giotto fooling his teacher Cimabue by adding a realistic-looking fly to a painting.

Salvador Dalí, who was pretty much the lord of the flies (he painted them a lot) included a fly on the watch face of his painting The Persistence of Memory (now housed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York). He also used an army of ants to signify the decay of time and life’s impermanence.

All is not what it appears

Portrait of a Carthusian, the most famous portrait featuring a fly, now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, was painted by Petrus Christus in 1446. It depicts a bearded monk. The fly perched on the ledge in front of him signifies we’re entering a zone where all is not what it appears: we might say that what seems real is only an illusion. Or, perhaps the artist has enhanced “the quality of the subject’s ‘real’ presence by the fly resting momentarily on the fictive frame,” according to the museum.


Entomologist Ron Cherry has explored how insects have long-standing mythological associations with death. In Renaissance thought, which tended to blend medieval fabulist tales about nature with ideas about religion, flies were considered to represent supernatural power, mostly associated with evil and corruption, because they seemed to be spontaneously born from decaying fruit and rotting organic matter.

In the book of Exodus in the Bible, God mustered swarms of flies as punishment. They were harbingers of worse things, like pestilence and death. That’s a lot of deliverables for a bunch of tiny flies.

The point is that flies still remind us of unpleasant things, or as commentator David Frum noted, unpleasant things in a presidency we’d rather ignore — which is why, I suspect, given the administration’s record, some people found it so delightful.


The Conversation is a network of not-for-profit media outlets that publish news stories written by academics and researchers.

Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family,’ c. 1470, by an artist from the German (Swabian) School. (Wikimedia Commons), CC BY

Salvador Dalí, The Persistence of Memory, 1931. Museum of Modern Art, New York City

‘Portrait of a Carthusian’ (1446), by Petrus Christus, oil on wood. Held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Wikimedia Commons), CC BY

Original article by Sally Hickson:   https://theconversation.com/mike-pences-fly-from-renaissance-portraits-to-salvador-dali-artists-used-flies-to-make-a-point-about-appearances-147815

SNL: Fly Debate:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xI_lxFv203I&list=PLS_gQd8UB-hLlAHDdSUdIYLjk9WCDnjWx



All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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