David Kassan and Andy Warhol: Portrait Perspectives

David Kassan’s paintings go well beyond what a photograph can achieve. Kassan masterfully conveys the character of his subjects- one can feel the emotional intensity that pervades his portraits- while also effectively communicating the subject-viewer relationship. His portraits are palpably real, almost uncomfortably personal. The emotional connection Kassan establishes with his subjects contributes to the intimate nature of his paintings. In stark contrast, Andy Warhol turned the subject-artist relationship on its head with his acclaimed/reviled celebrity portraits. The subjects he presents us are façades- Warhol does not attempt to capture true character, as Kassan does, choosing instead to convey the subject’s public image.

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Figure 1.David Kassan, “Letter to My Mother”. 2014. Oils on panel.

David Kassan’s artistic process can be seen in his painting “Letter to My Mother” (Figure 1), completed this year. As demonstrated in this painting, Kassan balances likeness and artistry, never sacrificing one in favor of the other. His work goes far beyond mere representation. The sitter is the artist’s mother, Roberta, and she seems uncannily alive; the skin careworn and translucent, eyes downcast, fingers intertwined. The backdrop is characteristically textured, but still simple enough so as to not distract from the figure. Most of Kassan’s work is similarly composed. The simple compositions allow the viewer to experience the model without distractions, bolstering Kassan’s attempt to establish intimacy. His brushwork is all but eliminated, giving the paint on the figure a very photographic feel. Kassan asserts that his softening of the brushstrokes is meant to force the viewer to think “more about the model’s expression and emotion rather than the movement of a brushstroke… You have the viewer and you have the subject of the piece, and I want nothing in between that connection. I don’t want paint to get in the way of that. I want the paint to prop up this person to be seen, so you can feel their emotion more tangibly and they are in your space”. Kassan is not a painter of flair and fluff- he gets down to the nitty-gritty. The emotional connection established between the viewer and the subject is what is most valued. Kassan’s painting also conflates abstraction and representation. On the surface, his paintings appear photographic- but they are, in a sense, abstracted to fit the artist’s need or message. Kassan often sets his realistic figures against more abstracted backgrounds; for example, in the heavily textured backdrop above the figure in the painting of his mother are Hebrew letters, purposefully breaking up the space; juxtaposed against the figure, this brings the subject forward in the space.

Kassan acts as an intermediary between the subject he portrays and the viewer. His work is more than just artificial representation; the intimacy he establishes allows the viewer to communicate with the subject interpersonally. We are offered a glimpse into the sitter’s psyche, moving us. In Figure 1, Roberta’s stance and her downcast eyes captivate us- every experience, every feeling that the sitter has ever felt is etched in the lines of her face. Most of Kassan’s work is introspective in nature. The power of his paintings is derived from the viewer-sitter relationship. Kassan’s primary objective of capturing the little nuances of emotion and expression is very aptly conveyed in this portrait. As evidenced by Figure 1, Kassan’s handling of oil paint (removal of brushstrokes, the conflation of abstraction and representation) allows him to more effectively represent what he sees. The intricate skin tones, built up slowly and layer upon layer, gives fleshiness to the figure. Through these layers light enters and is reflected back, imbuing the figure with presence and vivacity. His background, which is graphic and fragmentary, textured and tactile, serves as a descriptive patina. In Figure 1, the Hebrew letters hearken back to Kassan’s Jewish heritage. They read: “This painting is my way to spend more time with you”. To the casual observer, who more than likely doesn’t understand Hebrew, these words still have weight. The archaic text lends the painting a certain ambiguity, which both entices and mystifies the viewer, strengthening the subject-viewer experience. As in most of his paintings, the backdrops import a sense of history; both subject and background are integral components in establishing an emotional connection with the viewer. His artistic interjections of self are subtle. Kassan is conscious not to interfere between the subject and viewer; his technique is therefore a means to an end, its goal to enhance the viewer’s experience. Whether we, as the viewers, are aware of Kassan’s personal connection to the model is irrelevant; his paintings are appealing because they are relatable on so many different levels. The viewer is given a glimpse of something that seems tangible and important, and much of this effect is achieved visually, not necessarily thematically.

Figure 2. Andy Warhol, “Gold Marilyn”. 1963. Silkscreen.
Figure 2. Andy Warhol, “Gold Marilyn”. 1963. Silkscreen.

Andy Warhol’s approach to portraiture, contrary to Kassan, doesn’t seek to establish a personal connection between the subject and the viewer- at least, not a connection based on true self. Warhol was obsessed with celebrity- perhaps one of his most iconic portraits is “Gold Marilyn” (Figure 2), completed in 1963, shortly after Monroe’s tragic death. When Warhol first exhibited the painting, critic Michael Fried heralded Warhol’s painting as one of the “most successful pieces in the show”. Warhol’s image was impactful because of its symbolism; upon her death, Monroe became a kind of martyr, the ultimate symbol of celebrity and its effects. It is not meant to inform us of Monroe’s character, but rather sets out to capture the public’s perception of her. In a sense, Warhol is illustrating the myth of Monroe, not Monroe as she truly was. Throughout the rest of his life, Warhol would always use the same image of Marilyn in his paintings, signifying the fixity of her myth.

In Figure 2, Warhol attempts to capture the cult of personality surrounding Monroe by invoking religious, Byzantine imagery. Much of Warhol’s work attempted to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary; in the case of “Gold Marilyn”, this transformation is religious in nature. Arthur Danto in After the End of Art argues that Warhol, and Pop Art in general, “transfigured the things or kinds of things that meant most to people,” raising the ordinary “to the status of high art”. Pop art was, essentially, trans-figurative. Warhol’s portrait of Monroe is no longer a depiction of reality, but an exalted image, made religious in our minds by the power of public perception. Unlike Kassan’s painting, Warhol’s subject is not meant to be seen as a person, per say; it transcends the banal and takes on a kind of spiritual quality. To Warhol, the idea of Monroe was more important than her personal self. The process of silk screening that Warhol employed reinforced his ideas on the concept of celebrity; the artist’s touch is nearly eliminated, and all that is left is the viewer and the idol. Whereas Kassan’s work is intimate -we are given a glimpse into the life of the sitter- Warhol’s work is more concerned with image, not necessarily the true nature of the sitter. According to Jeanette Wintersen, in Warhol’s works the “Id, the instinctive subconscious self has been replaced by the Ego – the surface self. Photo-Ego is what Andy started. It’s what happens when identity is confused with recognition. How we see ourselves becomes dependent on how others see us. The surface is all there is.” In a sense, the surface becomes the true nature of the person.

Despite their obvious stylistic and thematic differences, Warhol and Kassan’s portraits share one striking similarity: they force the viewer to think more deeply, encouraging introspection. In a sense, both relationships are personal projections, and merely represent different ways of observing a person. Kassan’s attempt to establish a connection between the viewer’s self and the subject’s self is reinforced by his subtle technique and simple composition; Warhol uses similar methods, utilizing simple composition to bring home the idea of Monroe’s importance. Kassan rejects artistic flair in his work, dismissing it as a distraction.Warhol’s paintings are also simple, lacking any readily apparent artistic voice. Both artists attempt to avoid excessive personal interjections in their works though Warhol takes this avoidance to the extreme. The relationship that the artist establishes with the viewer is important to both artists; Kassan achieves this through his highly personal portraits, many of which portray friends or family- however, knowing the personal relationship Kassan shares with his model/models isn’t necessary to understand or respect the work he produces. In Figure 1, we see that all the elements of the image contribute to establishing a connection between the viewer and the subject. Kassan’s mother seems almost shy with her downcast eyes, yet seems to be at peace with herself, as indicated by her relaxed posture and peaceful disposition.

As aforementioned, the viewer/subject relationship found in Warhol’s portraits deal with image, not true personality. But it wasn’t exclusively Marilyn’s image that Warhol was capturing- in all his work, Warhol’s detachment actually gives presence to his paintings. In a way, Warhol’s detachment becomes his trademark. This further creates a sense of detachment from the sitter, placing importance on Warhol’s commercial quality rather than on the sitter herself. Warhol’s personality predominates all his celebrity portraits, in a way that Kassan’s personality does not. Ironically, though Warhol claimed complete detachment from his work, his paintings bear the unmistakable and now iconic features of a “Warhol”. Like Marilyn Monroe, Warhol had a public mask as well, and more than anything he wanted to become a vital commodity. Warhol successfully created a kind of art that shifted the focus from the subject of the painting to the artist behind the painting- not overtly, but by severing the connection between the viewer and subject, placing emphasis on surface and commodity. In this way, Warhol takes the lack of artistic flair a step further than Kassan, but ironically this detachment ends up becoming an unmistakable trademark of Warhol’s that often overshadows the subjects of his paintings.

David Kassan and Andy Warhol’s portraits are effective because they provoke a reaction from the viewer. Kassan achieves the viewer/subject relationship by creating a realistic scene in which the viewer seems to occupy a space with the subject of the painting. The vibrancy and tactility of his subjects breathe life into Kassan’s paintings. His compositional choices and more abstracted backgrounds/texts add a certain ambiguity to the paintings, further drawing the viewer in. Kassan paints personal subjects but attempts to keep his personal interjections limited, so as to not become too obtrusive. Warhol focuses on the surface image of the sitter, placing her against a flat backdrop. She is detached, her personality replaced by the façade of celebrity. As a result of his effort to erase his hand from the painting, the subject actually takes on the artist’s own identity, becoming a symbol of Warhol’s trademark style. Both artists effectively convey two different sides of portraiture, while also sharing similarities that might not be readily apparent to the casual observer.

The Heritage of Apelles

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(Figure 1): Botticelli, Sandro. The Calumny of Apelles. ca. 1497. Tempera on panel. 62 x 91 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi. ARTstor (artstor.org).

In his encyclopedic work Naturalis Historia, the Roman philosopher and author Pliny the Elder praises Apelles as an exemplar of Grecian artistic fortitude: “[I]t was Apelles of Cos who surpassed all the painters that preceded him and all who were to come after him….He singly contributed almost more to painting than all the other artists put together….His art was unrivaled for graceful charm, although other very great painters were his contemporaries.” Apelles, who worked  sometime in the late 4th century BCE, is known only by anecdotes related by later authors, through whom his legend has resonated down through the centuries. Little is known of Apelles’ life, but ancient texts assert that he was likely born in Ionia and later apprenticed under Pamphilus of the Sicyonian school (Pliny alleges Sicyon to be the birthplace of painting in ancient Greece). After acquiring some publicity, he was entrusted with painting a portrait of Alexander the Great and other such commissions as a Macedonian court painter; for Aphrodite Anadyomene (Aphrodite Rising from the Sea)Pliny relates the tradition that Apelles used one of Alexander’s consorts (allegedly Campaspe) as his model for the goddess; according to legend, Alexander was so taken by the painting that he granted Apelles Campaspe as a reward for his endeavors. Such is the myth of the man; whether any of these tales is true is a subject of debate. His works must have been revolutionary and breathtaking, regarded as unsurpassed in grace and beauty even five centuries after his death. Apelles came to embody the genius of ancient Greek art, and to the artists of the Renaissance, who strove to emulate the masters of antiquity, he was the pinnacle of artistic achievement.

With the ascension of Neoplatonism in the Renaissance, there was an influx of names, histories, and legends lost to Europe for a millennium. The humanist tradition that catalyzed the resurgence of classical antiquity began with a refutation of the Gothic style in all its applications- beginning with literature and expanding into the arts and architecture. The Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi was one of the first artisans to challenge the orthodox building practices of the Gothic style; he saw the Gothic arches as solecisms and barbaric corruptions of classical architecture. Brunelleschi’s influence spread beyond architecture and into the realm of painting; his discovery of perspectival drawing, famously applied by Masaccio in The Holy Trinity, was perhaps a rediscovery of methods that had allowed Apelles to deceive the sense of sight. But the true heritage of Greece is the use of light in illusionism. E.H. Gombrich, in The Heritage of Apelles, asserts that the differentiation between light and luster (allegedly pioneered by Apelles) was pivotal to the artistic revolution of the Renaissance and just as important as the advent of perspectival drawing. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and the Latin world’s subsequent slide into disorder, the artistic and literary traditions begun by the ancient Greeks were forsaken; the artisans of Europe abandoned the Greek tradition in favor of flat planes and austere mosaics. Yet, the Greco-Roman artistic tradition was not entirely lost- for example, during the Byzantine era, mosaics and such religious icons as Christ Pantocrator dominated the artistic landscape, utilizing the artistic convention of “grazing light”, a lateral illumination which can be traced back to the Pompeiian muralists of classical antiquity. After a thousand years of unreason, the artistic traditions of Apelles finally reemerged, driven by a revived scholarly interest in pagan religion. A number of “new Apelles'” were born; from Masaccio to Jan Van Eyck, from Leonardo Da Vinci to Titian, each of these new artists carried on the tradition of ancient Greece, the tradition of Apelles, as they sought to usher in a new age of beauty and refinement. Apelles’ influence was so poignant and pervasive that he can rightly be called the progenitor of the artistic Renaissance in Europe.

The Calumny: Apelles’ Reemergence

A rediscovered treatise, On Calumny, authored by the Syrian rhetorician and satirist Lucian, gives a detailed description of a long lost Apelles’ painting titled Calumny

On the right of it sits a man with very large ears, almost like those of Midas, extending his hand to Slander while she is still at some distance from him. Near him, on one side, stand two women—Ignorance and Suspicion. On the other side, Slander is coming up, a woman beautiful beyond measure, but full of malignant passion and excitement, evincing as she does fury and wrath by carrying in her left hand a blazing torch and with the other dragging by the hair a young man who stretches out his hands to heaven and calls the gods to witness his innocence. She is conducted by a pale ugly man who has piercing eye and looks as if he had wasted away in long illness; he represents envy. There are two women in attendance to Slander, one is Fraud and the other Conspiracy. They are followed by a woman dressed in deep mourning, with black clothes all in tatters—she is Repentance. At all events, she is turning back with tears in her eyes and casting a stealthy glance, full of shame, at Truth, who is slowly approaching.

He describes calumny as a product of ignorance and “undoubtedly one of the greatest evils incident to mankind… the source of innumerable misfortunes…”.  After this denouncement, he relates the legend of the Calumny of Apelles, in which Theodotus, envious and desirous of Apelles’ skill, spreads false rumor against him. Apelles allegedly reproaches the calumniator by painting the Calumny, a pictorial representation of his victory over the slanderer. Apelles’ skill was thereafter unquestioned, and his fame was assured. The artists of the Renaissance must have seen the Grecian artist as the pinnacle of the artistic and intellectual culture they were trying to revive.

Sandro Botticelli painted The Calumny of Apelles in 1497 CE (see Figure 1 above) in accordance to Lucian’s description. Botticelli was a prolific Florentine painter, renowned for his depictions of pagan gods in his paintings. In the Renaissance, especially in Florence, there was a strong interest in the occult; these supernatural forces were beautifully captured in Botticelli’s works. The Birth of Venus contains the first monumental female nude since antiquity- a syncretic painting, representative of the Neoplatonic thought that dominated the Renaissance. Neoplatonism conflated paganism and Christianity, taking the virtues of each and extolling them. For example, the Neoplatonists saw Venus as interchangeable with the Virgin, an embodiment of love. Many other parallels were made between the scriptures and the ancient pagan religions. Viewed in this way, pagan and Christian beliefs could exist harmoniously. For painters like Botticelli, this new ideology allowed for greater artistic freedom and a means to explore the ancient past. Perhaps the suppression of the Greco-Roman artistic tradition by the medieval Church could be seen as another calumny against Apelles- and the Renaissance his crowning glory.

Continue reading “The Heritage of Apelles”

Exploring the Action Painting of Willem De Kooning

For a contemporary art class, I was tasked with creating a project based on the work of the action painter Willem De Kooning (1904-1997), one of the few Abstract Expressionists who continued to paint human figures. His paintings are made up of erratic and violent brushstrokes, creating a chaotic storm of color and line. De Kooning’s work seems naïve at first glance, but his seemingly simple execution belies the belabored painting process involved in the creation of his art. Unlike some of his contemporaries (e.g. Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko), the final painting was less important than the process of making it. De Kooning’s figures were painted and reworked many times over in an attempt to capture what he called the “intimate proportions” of anatomy. He rejected traditional anatomy, warping and interchanging elements of the figure to achieve a new level of intimacy through nontraditional proportions. De Kooning’s female subjects are represented as voluptuous, almost Paleolithic (e.g. Venus of Willendorf), and painted with such ferocity that they appear menacing. The viewer both fears and reveres the figure, reflecting mankind’s ambivalence toward the feminine.

My own work has always been highly representational. However, I found De Kooning’s meditations on human perception and human intimacy fascinating. I can relate to his reluctance to forgo figurative painting. The human figure has always been a wellspring from which I draw inspiration. To me, nothing is as compelling as the gentle curve of the female form or the subtle quiver of the mouth. I think, ultimately, that my desire to capture the essence of a person is driven by my desire to understand them. De Kooning attempted to capture the essence of the people he painted by ignoring physical traits (and to De Kooning, superficial traits) or warping them. My approach differs. I emphasize the physical nature of the person, the beauty of the form, and thereby relay the character of my subject. Though our techniques are different, our goal is the same: to capture identity, personhood, what it means to be human.

For this project, I set out to create a painting as De Kooning would. I found his approach interesting, not just philosophically but technically as well. The figure I painted is female (as my primary interest is female beauty), but it’s a warped and hellish figure with a ghastly smile and wide eyes. I sought to capture the menacing power that De Kooning portrayed in his paintings while maintaining a certain beauty in the feminine form. I found the uninhibited painting process liberating, and I quite enjoyed the tactile quality of the erratic brush strokes and varying thicknesses of the oil paints on the panel. Unfortunately, due to time restraints, I didn’t have the luxury of laboring on the work over an extended period (De Kooning would spend months on one painting), so this project became more of an exploration of De Kooning’s style and subject matter than of his painting process. Pictured below is the final painting.

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Reclining Woman, study in the style of Willem De Kooning