“Popular culture has become our common language, and to become fluent in it is, like it or not, a key part of making sense of the larger world” –Andi Zeisler
by Art Chantry ( firstname.lastname@example.org )
i don’t know who was the first ‘pop kitsch superstar artist”, but the very first one i ever found was named ‘augustus john’. he was one of those silly “look ma, i’m an artist’ guys who wore a goatee and and a beret and loose smock (and a cravat!) while standing at an upright easel with a brush in one hand and big oval palette in the other, while staring at his subject seated before him. in fact, that stereotypical ‘artist’ image i just described became the hoary cliche of what an artist looked like for over 75 years. it was augustus john who created that stereotype. all those little ‘old timey artist’ clip art images you still find out there were actually little cartoon caracitures of augustus john.
john made an enormous amount of money cranking out cheezy portraits of the rich and famous in a neo-classic contemporary (to the 1920’s) style. pure junk, total crap. “kitschy but kompetent.’ the rich and famous paid above top dollar to sit for him and he played the media and the press (such as it was) to the hilt with his high lifestyle and famous pals. he lived better than almost any artist of the modern era and was prolific, cranking out huge numbers of these paintings. in fact, he was THE most famous painter in the world during his lifetime. but, where is his work now? you may find a portrait here or there stuck in a dark corner in smaller art museums around the world. but, his stuff was, well, well executed expensive tripe. now, he’s almost totally forgotten.
there have been many many such artists over the last century. maybe there always have been. but, the ones i like are those clowns who are pop phenoms – huge ‘stars’ – popular personalities. some of my (and everybody’s) favorites are guys like vladimir tretchikoff, whose ‘green lady’ painting was a staple thrift store find for decades. his work was praised and celebrated in the late 50’s, early 60’s. he was even given huge honors and degrees and awards and celebrated with massive showings in the largest galleries. he was a big star. now his work is only collected by those thrift store mavens of period kitsch alongside starburst wall clocks and kidney shaped coffee tables.
other staple names in the territory are the ever popular patrick nagel, the irrepressible leroy nieman. even peter max and (dare i say it?) shepard fairey have reached this level of hyper pop stardom – ‘the rock star artist.” certainly dale chihuly with his glass ‘butterfly’ ashtrays has made this grade a long time ago. perhaps we may someday include jeff koons and damien hirst in this league. but, only time will tell.
however, the bull-goose looney of this rarified and elite club has to be the ignoble walter keane. his schmaltzy “big-eyed’ children painted in settings of lonely poverty and heart wrenching isolation were all the rage in the late 50’s/early 60’s. his work was everywhere and commanded enormous price tags. he was celebrated in magazines and books (most of them self-published by anonymous “institutes” who were actually walter keane. it’s just like chihuly’s publishing empire – all self-contained promo). he attracted big name famous patrons, jerry lewis (who hired him to do a family portrait all dressed as harlequins) and natalie wood (who had herself portraited complete with those enormous trademark ‘big eyes’.) he sold 4-color repro prints of his work and made millions. no trailer trash household in america was without one taped to the wall. calling him ‘hugely popular’ was like calling water ‘very wet’.
the funny thing about walter keane’s work, however, seems to be that he seems to have not been the one who painted them. his wife, margaret keane (“MDH Keane” as she signed herself), had been painting less stylized (aka less-tacky) versions of big-eyed nymphs for many many years before she ever met the erstwhile walter. the minute they got hitched, he suddenly became a painter and artist (i’ve never seen a painting by him that predates their union). whereas margaret was an already establish (but minor) artist in her own right, he came out of nowhere echoing her work with frightening similarity. his marketing genius, was of course, his own and they both became very successful and wealthy. however, walter always made a distinct point of separating HIS work from HER work. he wanted the fame and the glory, and MDH got to be along for the ride.
as their empire grew and twisted, there emerged a cult problem. walter’s ego created a a circle of acolytes that worshiped him and his every word. soon there were encampments and guruism. i’ve never really read the whole sordid story (never been able to work up the nerve). but, adam parfrey wrote a big chapter on them in his book “apocalypse culture” (feral house press). it’s well worth checking out. it’s sort of amazing how many of these ‘rock star painters’ became gurus. it’s the same in advertising. it seems enormous egos tend to get out of control and go a little nutso. who knew?
anyway, margaret finally started divorce proceedings against walter. he counter-sued. it all became a big ugly long term mess that took literally decades to settle. margaret eventually won control of all the paintings, but it was only a few years ago. one reason for the long battle is that margaret claimed she painted all the paintings that made walter famous. she said he never lifted a brush. walter, on the other hand, claimed sole authorship. when asked why he never painted before meeting margaret and why he suddenly stopped painting after margaret split (he never again painted a singlage), he claims the trauma of the vicious divorce destroyed his creative skills. uh-huh.
this is an ‘MDH Keane’ painting from 1962. it’s the classic big-eyed waif that she was famous for ‘pre-walter’. walter’s contribution was to seemingly (at best) copy her style and make the chick pre-pubescent and cashed in. at worst, he had her paint all of his paintings for him and she obliged. some people claim that walter painted all the paintings he did – but left the eyes blank and had margaret paint the eyes in). whatever actually transpired, it worked very well. in fact, it launched a thousand imitators as well. names like “gig” (big eyed alley kittens), and “eve” (harlequin children) and a million sentimental cheap mass-produced prints and greeting cards by anonymous knock-off ‘artists’ flooded the market to this very day. the ‘big-eyed’ virus was profound and lethal to every one. today, it’s all highly prized the ironic snarky culture of the present. we love this stuff because it’s so BAD.
i was in san francisco about 10-20 years back and happened to walk by MDH Keane “Eyes” gallery. in the picture window was one of the ultrafamous ‘walter’ paintings – in the flesh. it was a hoot to peek in the window (it was a sunday and the place was closed) and see all the original keane collection hanging on the walls. it would have been a dream to walk among those original paintings and get a good look at them. the gallery is apparently often manned by margaret herself, who will actually talk to you about them – if you’re not a jerk to her. i have no idea if that gallery or any of that stuff is still there.
what’s the name of that guy who has galleries in shopping malls right now? he calls himself “the painter of light’? makes millions and is even building a entire town that looks just like his paintings (to sell homes to collectors – just like buying one of his paintings – in 3D!!) that’s the ticket!—-Thomas Kinkade….