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|le violin d'ingres
by Baird Jones
In any discussion of celebrity art, the expression "le violin d'Ingres" usually pops up. It seems that the great salon painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres played the violin. As if he were some proto-Jack Benny, Ingres thought himself an exquisite fiddler, while his Parisian friends considered it horrendous.
Like Ingres and his violin, many Hollywood celebrities view their achievements in pop culture to be peripheral to their true esthetic calling. Actors like Tony Curtis and Zero Mostel, musicians like Richie Havens, poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, even someone like Hulk Hogan are likely to tell an interviewer, in essence, "You haven't seen the true me until you've seen my art."
Tony Curtis is a perfect example of "le violin d'Ingres." In his movies, Curtis can rely on his perky charm. Not so with his lush, junglefied landscapes and overripe still lifes. Virtually every painting he produces is a disastrously overcrowded morass of excess. And as the 76-year-old Curtis has appeared in fewer films in recent years, his painting output has soared.
Zero Mostel painted virtually every day, insisting that he was foremost a painter and only secondly a thespian. In the work by Mostel that I've seen, he seemed to concentrate on painting his own hands, often fragmented in a Cubist manner and with a very subdued palette. Perhaps being blacklisted as a Communist during the 1950s contributed to Mostel's introspection. Celebrity devotion to art-making may actually reflect a desire for privacy. The artist's studio is a notoriously solitary place, after all.
Matt Dillon told me that he also mainly paints his own hands, claiming that their proximity as subject matter helped him "keep things simple." Recently Dillon has branched off into collage and ornate lettering based on medieval scripts, and his artworks in that genre have been cropping up in charity auctions in the $500 range.
Billy Dee Williams began his career as a painter, and even won a Guggenheim scholarship at age 19. Today he is said to be again concentrating on his art. His career on the silver screen collapsed after he was arrested two years ago for beating up his wife.
For '60s legend Richie Havens, the urge to paint tends to arise after his concerts are over. "It isn't just when my voice is hoarse," he explained. "Even if I have just been playing guitar, and I've finished, that's when I want to communicate visually." Havens exemplifies a surprising trait often found in celebrity art -- the public persona of the star is not even hinted at in the artwork. The earthy Woodstock bluesman favors a restrained, compressed urban vision in which his Brooklyn roots show through. Havens makes drawings and watercolors that often depict subway vistas, snaking in a dizzy kaleidoscope like a mandela.
Another celeb whose art surprises his fans is Hulk Hogan. Like many huge men who are famous, Hogan retreats into a miniature universe when he paints. A typical Hogan picture is only a few inches high. Similarly, despite having one of the loudest voices in recorded history, Enrico Caruso did charcoal drawings which tend to be just a few inches square. He often made these pictures in synagogues, where he went to prepare before his performances.
An obvious combination of opposites is found in the clown who is crying on the inside. Comedian Jonathan Winters' surrealist fantasies seem to center on thoughts of suicide. The juxtaposition of sunny California, Chagall-like dream images and suicide is jarring, flat and ineffective despite its burnt-out sincerity. It comes as no surprise to learn that Winters has been hospitalized several times for depression.
It is axiomatic that painting is the perfect hobby for retirement or convalescence. One thinks of Winston Churchill with his conventional landscapes in the British countryside. But a star's fans can freak out if their hero suddenly stops producing -- only to turn to fine art. Kurt Vonnegut told me, "When God retired me from writing, all I had left was painting. Having accomplished so much as a writer, I feel no pressure to produce something original when I do artwork so I openly admit that I copy Alex Calder." The result is a series of whimsical, somewhat figurative prints. Even here, the art tends to carry the baggage of the Vonnegut legend. His most popular works feature string figures that evoke his book Cat's Cradle.
Worst offender in the "I'm painting because I have writer's block" category is Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Now in his 80s and the poet laureate of San Francisco, Ferlinghetti currently considers himself mainly as a painter, and shows his work through the well-meaning George Krevsky Gallery in San Francisco (which has also shown William Saroyan). Since publishing his major literary works in the '50s and '60s, the baldheaded owner of the City Lights bookstore has produced a voluminous body of mediocre art.
Ferlinghetti's scribbled paintings, drawings and lithographs are filled with hastily rendered figures, with more detail found in the presentation of the genitals than in the faces. They carry pretentious titles, have no sense of color or balance, and are so small they have a seemingly intentional insignificance. The best that can be said is that his stuff is inexpensive.
The utter disappointment of his stick figures is flippantly thrown off center by an eccentrically double crossed "F" in his signature, either the best or the worst of his vision. He told me that he had always signed his name that way, but it really jumps out when so little else grabs the eye. As so often in celebrity art, the fey signature always seems to dominate the canvas. If you must collect Ferlinghetti, look for works that are accompanied by short poems, which somewhat redeem the enterprise.
BAIRD JONES is a New York curator and writer.