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  • Arthur Bacon

Adam Gopnik; Learning to (not) Draw (New Yorker, 27 June 2011)

Updated: Mar 22, 2021

About fifteen years ago a friend of mine and I had a huge argument about (retinal) drawing. One day I suggested the possibility that one could learn some fundamentals of drawing in a weekend workshop and you would think I had suggested that George Bush would make a good English teacher. Going postal, foaming at the mouth, plate-throwing apoplexy, are all expressions that vaguely resemble the emotional state of my painter friend when I suggested that perhaps one could learn some important drawing skills at a weekend workshop in the Catskils.

Reluctantly, I had to admit that my friend was right. Art is not a skill; it is a way of life, a way of thinking and god help us if we are gonna change our way of thinking in twelve hours of guru-ship, epiphanies notwithstanding. Of course, one can learn a few “tricks of the trade” and come away from a weekend at some barn atelier in the Catskills and make a caricature of a face which will impress a ten year old but does that have anything more to do with art than knowing about the gamma and density of a negative for making a particluar photograph? Of course, a persuasive argument can be made for the hypothesis that the more we know the more we have to work with but that is getting away from the point of the argument. The argument is about ART and little tricks and shortcuts have nothing to do with something like life; is there a shortcut to a good life? Is there a trick to living better? I don’t think so any more than there might be a trick to learning how to draw.

I stopped teaching photography workshops because virtually everybody who came to such things just wanted to make pretty pictures; they were not interested in the deeper, troubling significances of art. I don’t necessarily know what those deeper significances are myself but a soft-focus Edelweiss or S-curve stream leading to a Sierra summit fall short of my expectations. Art is a struggle like life itself with few viable shortcuts and in fact, the real artist never learns to do any thing conclusively; he/she is always learning, fraught to know more like Hokusai, who, at eighty said he hoped to really learn how to paint some day. As a matter of fact, once we think “we’ve got it” we are screwed (to use an academic expression) and end up like Mondrian painting the same thing over and over for the rest of our lives. I think Adam Gopnik just wanted to learn how to draw stuff.

As an aside, I am appalled that a frequent contributor to a magazine I usually enjoy can be so f___ing stupid; but then again, if the New Yorker were perfect that too would be another form of intolerability. But the fact remains; this article about an egotistical polymath deciding to learn to draw is a bad piece of writing because of its insistent (arrogant) hubris. It never seems to occur to Mr. Gopnik to explore the real, if ineffable, meaning of art because if he had he would have been quite dissatisfied with Jacob Collins as a teacher after the very first session in the faux French atelier. At the very least, he would have been suspicious about all that old art crap lying around. I mean, who is trying to fool whom?

I am reminded of a remark a friend of mine made at one of Ansel Adams’s Yosemite photography workshops. Those workshops were in mid June when the rivers run high and the temperatures are perfect with the smell of the redwoods and moss beckoning one to get out and savor one of Nature’s most glorious accomplishments. Anyway, Dave Bohn, one of the other instructors stood up in front of the excited audience of whorkshoppers (doctors, dentists, lawyers, housewives, students and professional photographers) and said, “I just want you to know… this isn’t an Easter egg hunt.” There was a moment of stunned silence as the Philistines squirmed with uncomfortable incomprehension and then Ansel stood up and invited everybody to his studio for cocktails. I was very young and stupid then and didn’t quite understand the reference to Easter egg hunts but now I know damn well what Dave Bohn meant and Adam Gopnik is old enough to know too. Drawing is not about tricks like clock faces, small African nations or “butlers nestled in the folds of a model’s abdomen”. I almost became ill reading Jacob Collins’s suggestion, “See there, right in the space beneath his breastbone, I see this kind of snooty-looking butler, his chin pointing out and his nose in the air and his eyes half shut. Do you see him?” I NEVER would have seen him nor would I have wanted to see him. I would have been polite but I would have found another drawing teacher as soon as I recovered my equilibrium over a few pints of Guinness in the nearest tavern.

Needless to say, I have looked up Jacob Collins and his art. He is an incredibly gifted painter and draughtsman…but with nothing to say. He is like a pianist who hits all the notes of Brahms’s Sonata #3 in F Minor but has nothing to say about Tristan and Isolde (about whom Brahms was thinking when he wrote the piece). I can imagine his exquisite rennaissancian paintings on the walls of top law firms and oil companies in Manhattan. Some of his landscapes might even grace the walls of Memorial Sloan Kettering. He could probably make a fortune making Rafael knockoffs. He lacks imperfection and suffers from virtuosity. His paintings make me feel like puking.

For about a year John Lord would go to Giacometti’s studio to sit for a portrait. Now there was an artist! Sometimes Alberto wasn’t in the studio but down the street in the brasserie sunk in despair at the ineptitude and stupidity of his painting. Sometimes he would scratch out and paint over the entire portrait. Can you imagine him “working in” some African nations or cherubs in the furrows of John Lord’s chin? My god, this is like talking about Beethoven and Montovani in the same sentence. I mean, what was Adam Gopnik’s purpose in “learning to draw” anyway; to experience the elements of art making…to be around an artist…to learn something about art? Why did he choose a second rate painter to learn from? Maybe he should have just gone to Netflix and rented some old Bob Ross videos if all he wanted was to learn to make a retinal drawing of a nude figure.

I don’t know who to be angrier at, Adam Gopnik because of his stupid art (treacle) or Jacob Collins for his stupidly retro old-masters paintings. At one point in the seminar Gopnik is trying to draw the torso of a magnificently endowed African American man and he says, My drawing of Nate didn’t look like Nate because that’s what drawings of Nate look like. They looked like Nate because, however ineptly, they showed something of the way Nate looked. I say what? Qwoti gperwiutwe gipuergv ???!!! And in The New Yorker no less. But, the fact is, these two sentences illustrate the whole tendentious, arrogant, undisciplined hubris of the article. Suffice it to say, such inanities floating in the ether of die Kunstweld give angry comfort to those of us struggling to really make significant art in a modern age.

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