fine art “motorama”: hawk to the rubes

Guest blog by Art Chantry.Its a cheezy embarrassing system, one in which the squeaky wheel gets the grease. The most ruthless hustlers and self-promoting con-men become the wealthiest and most celebrated in the fine art world…

Art Chantry (

When I was a kid, I remember my parents getting all dolled up for a new year’s eve party. They both had these silly silver glittered glasses that they wore. They both had the year ‘1961’ plastered over their eyes as a mask (the eye holes were the empty centers of the numerals ‘6’ and ‘9’.) I was just a little kid, but I loved those stupid glasses because you could wear them either way (and still have them read correctly. there was no ‘up or down’ to them. I thought was really cool and I played with them until I broke them. There’s a name for a word or number that can be read either way (front of=r back). but, is there a word for word or number that can be read the same upside down? Anybody out there know it?

AC:note that he black dot in the center creates a big 'cbs' style eye staring at you. that is a direct invitation to come and shop.

This is the cover for the cover of the program for the “1961 Pittsburgh International Exhibition of contemporary painting and sculpture”. The exhibit was held at the Carnegie Institute from October 27th, 1961, through January 3, 1962. This wonderful cover was designed by Arnold Varga, one of the most famous and admired designers of that era. You can find his work and his name peppered throughout the design culture literature of that era and he was considered one of the very best working. He’s all but forgotten now. I think really unfairly, too. The guy could do no wrong and everything he did still looks fresh and exciting today. I guess it’s because nobody ever did a book about him. That often seems to be the difference of being accepted and being forgotten in the design world. Too bad.

varga newspaper ads form the 1960's. read more:

The ‘winners’ of this exhibition were Mark Tobey (painting) and Alberto Giacometti (sculpture) both taking home the first prize money of a whopping $3000 each.The runners up (and also taking home prize money of $1500 for second place and $1000 for third place and so on down to $500 for fifth place) ere such luminous names as Adolph Gottlieb, Ellsworth Kelly and David Smith. But the best part are the losers.

This exhibition/contest had nearly 500 entrants from the top of the art world from all over the planet . There was a significant field of entries from Japan, which is a bit of a surprise for me. I didn’t know that the Japanese contemporary artists of that era were so respected. I guess that faded fast with the taste of the times.

---I advise people to do their own projects if they are feeling stifled at work. Arnold Varga did just that. Working as an art director in Pittsburgh in the 1960s, he produced a wonderful range of ads on a freelance basis. His ads for department stores Cox, and James Horne Co. are fresh and witty. They somehow skirt the issue of showing a dress with a big “Sale” sticker. Varga worked steadily as a small agency until he retired in 1970. When asked about his work, he replied, “It’s informative. It’s honest. It doesn’t hurt the eye when you look at it.” It don’t get better that that.--- click image for more...

The list of losers is like a who’s who of modern art: Josef Albers, Jean (hans) Arp, francis bacon, leonard baskin, max bill, floriano bodoni, alexander calder, john chamberlain, stuart davis, richard diebenkorn, jean dubuffet, sam francis, helen frankenthaler, robert hansen, hans hartug, barbara hepworth, paul horiuchi, jasper johns, ray johnson,franz kline, willem de kooning, alexander liberman, richard mayhew, henry moore, giorgio morandi, robert motherwell, louise nevelson, isamu noguchi, pablo picasso, richard pousette-dart, robert rauschenberg, larry rivers, mark rothko, jean tinguely, victor de vasarely, and even andrew wyeth, This list are just the most noticeable names to my eye. There are hundreds more.

It’s interesting to me that when we think of famous artists, we always assume they’re rich. That’s seldom true. The idea that people this known and cherished in our collective knowledge of ‘art’ would actually go to the trouble to compete in such a huge crapshoot of a field for a piddling $3000 (even by 1961 standards) seems really paltry to my thinking. The fact that it also meant that 99% of them would also-rans and lo

is humiliating as well. Yet, they still did it. Even Pablo Picasso entered. Crazy, huh?

Artists have egos. But, it’s also true that the most financially successful are great businessmen as well – killer salesmen. It’s one of the dirty little secrets of art that the best, most ruthless hustlers and self-promoting gimmicky conmen become the wealthiest and most famous in the commercially over burdened fine art world (and they have the gall to dismiss us graphic designers as mere ‘commercial’ artists!). So, showing your work in a prestigious field was reward enough for these folks. Think of it as ‘advertising’ or ‘marketing.’ I’ll bet most of them sold their paintings directly out of the exhibit for far more money that they could have won in the contest. This event was little more than a “motorama” style annual convention to sell ‘this year’s model.’ It’s very cheezy. But we look at this stuff as solid gold culture now. But, it’s still a cheezy embarrassing system.

So, the next time you hesitate about entering a group show or a competition with seemingly insulting payoff prize money, just remember this little lesson. We live in a capitalist culture and the only way to sell your work is to show it to people. Where are the people looking/ cheezy commercially driven ‘art exhibits’ to roll out the new product to hawk to the rubes. so be it. Get off yer high horse and put yoer crap out there to look at . They will never find you otherwise, no matter how ‘pure’ you may consider your work. Don’t be a jerk.

One notable exception on this list of losers is Andy Warhol. Pittsburgh is even his hometown, yet he didn’t enter this exhibit. That’s because he was just making the transition from ‘commercial artist’ (aka a commercial designer/illustrator of ten long years) to a ‘fine artist” at this time. He was still totally unknown. Always remember how late ol’ Andy came to the game – and his work was the cheeziest of all. He really crashed that party and raked in the dough and the fame from all of these aforementioned ‘masters’ of the turf. I think Andy’s ‘commercial’ history primed him just fine to conquer the fine art ‘system’. spot the diff….

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