You can study larger versions of these photos along with some illuminating text at


How about that Leonard Cohen quote!

You should be reaching for your cameral now. No, silly, not to take a selfie.  Stop mugging.

Go deeper.


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








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.





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.






A Compelling Image

Yes, I know what this is. This image shows skinny bare tree trunks in a dry hilly landscape.

What makes the stripes on the ground?

The stripes?  Let’s see.  Oh, the stripes are made by the shadows from the tree trunks.  Must be that the sun is low on the horizon.

Kinda cool?

Yeah,  pretty cool.


It’s not that you’re reminded of that afternoon in the state park, because you weren’t there, you didn’t take the photo.

It’s not that the image depicts some sexy scene.

Why is this image so compelling, even hypnotic?

Oh, I can chat about it. Try this:  Lines intersecting, over and over, with variation of angle, never mechanical, never repetitious. Focused attention,  like cross-hairs.  Rhythm. Percussion. There is no focal point.  No point of rest.  Your eye is constantly moving. The effect is purely visual, purely formal, not depending on any narrative.  No “appealing colors.”

If you only think this image is “pretty cool,”  I suggest you frame it. Frame it large or  project it on your large TV screen and look at it every day so that the memory of it will keep you awake at night without you knowing why on earth this is happening to you.

The past several posts have been about the power of composition.  This image is the culmination of all these past three month of looking and thinking about images here at artamaze.

Of all the things that grab you in an image—color, narrative, symbolism, etc.—the most powerful is composition.

Try to get some sleep.


Photo by Mary Shieldsmith


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





Your Kitsch-detector

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.





Ludwig van Beethoven was born on this day 250 years ago.  It was customary to baptize babies the day after they were born and since his baptismal record in Bonn shows December 17th as the date, it’s safe to assume his birth date is December 16, 1770.

The inexpressible depth of all music, by virtue of which it floats past us as a paradise quite familiar and yet eternally remote, and is so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain.  In the same way, the seriousness essential to it and wholly excluding the ludicrous from its direct and peculiar province is to be explained from the fact that its object is not the representation, in regard to which deception and ridiculousness alone are possible, but that this object is directly the will; and this is essentially the most serious of all things, as being that on which all depends.– Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

All art constantly aspires to the conditions of music.— Walter Pater (1839-1894)


Beethoven once stopped playing when an aristocrat was talking in the front row: “I’m not playing for such pigs.”  (Für solche Schweine spiel ich nicht.)

Being an Artist takes courage, it’s work and you have to risk being misunderstood.


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





Clifford Still

I came across this drawing recently and can’t get it out of my mind.

It’s small, 12x9in. Pastel on paper. 1951

All I can think of doing to it is flip it horizontally and, behold, it doesn’t work in this view.

What we have here is a non-representational image of such internal tension that it cannot be altered.

It looks like nothing.  Nothing?

When I look at this drawing–the original, on top– I want to project a vertical structure or a tree trunk between the red and black lines.  But that vanishes immediately. What’s left is the quick markmaking, apparently unconscious, and the dominance of “negative space.”

The choice of deep yellow paper is uncanny.  Imagine the paper gray or green or blue.  No go.

Clifford Still is known for his huge paintings, as seen in the Clifford Still Museum in Denver.

This painting, PH812, also from 1951, measures 115 x 104 inches.


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






In the last post we started by looking at something beautiful and ended up by suggesting that beauty may be a trap.  A breathtaking view becomes a trap if you think you can –how to say this—trap it.  The common word for this is “capturing it.”

“Oh, you captured that perfectly.”

“That is so beautiful; I want to see if I can capture it in my painting.”

People talk about “capturing” all the time. In music, painting, in a novel, a movie.  As if art making were some sort of hunting sport: you hunt the beauty down and then—gotcha!–you corral it in a fenced lot. You killed it!

So, art making is a form of execution.  If that’s too strong a word, how about strangulation.

In any case, “capturing” results in lifelessness.

We don’t want lifelessness, do we.

The reason that a painting that duplicates a photo would result in lifelessness is that it would make something monumental, i.e. static, out of a fleeting moment.  That would be a lie.

So, how can you allow yourself to be inspired by this image without deceiving yourself?

You can allow yourself to be mesmerized by a small passage that does not refer to a recognizable corner of reality.  It does not illustrate anything.

Now, that you can paint—or draw!  Not as a copyist, not directly, not in detail, but in gesture, in complete self-abandon.  If you pivot your mind into that level of fiction, you may be onto something.

Onto what?  We can’t predict.  Let’s see.




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





Kitsch 101


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.





Imagine the Shock

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.