G.F. has a mixed media collage that is a surrealistic image of a businessman’s tie, rendered in paper and mounted in a three dimensional structure of paper supported — and bounced — on little springs. It is not dated, but looks very 1980s.
Art and artists of the 1980s are now capturing the interest of the art world today.
You might ask, “Why the 1980s? Isn’t that when we listened to big hair bands, and we wore the worst fashions ever? How good could 1980s art be?”
Many important buyers of contemporary art today were born in the 1980s. When the art-buying public reaches connoisseurship maturity, often collectors collect the era in which they were born. Although the general styles of the 1980s (those garish colors, those lame attempts at pop art, those poor abstractions hung in hotel lobbies) are indeed terrible, in every era we find great artists, in spite of the prevailing look of a certain era.
The good artists who reached the top of their careers in the 1980s were trained in the 1940’s (post-World War II). In the 1980s, we see a strong line reaching back to both Cubism and Surrealism “discovered” in the previous generation.
G.F.’s collage is a great example of a surrealist construction of the 1980s, and the artist, Robert Watson, learned his technique and developed a style based on his teacher Frederic Taubes (who learned techniques and developed a style beginning in the 1920s); thus, Mr. Watson grew as an artist. The influence of a teacher cannot be underestimated.
Mr. Watson (1923-2004) was known for surrealistic cityscapes featuring the “lonely man.” The outcast man in a stark geometric built environment is his signature.
He studied under Mr. Taubes, born in Poland in 1900 and a master of painting techniques, craft, color and oil medium. This tells us one important fact about understanding art: if you want to understand a work by a certain artist, look at the artist’s teachers. Mentorship is a huge component of the artist’s world, one that every artist understands. And G.F.’s work is a good example of this.
Here’s how that mentorship flowed in the case of Mr. Taubes and Mr. Watson. Mr. Taubes was a child of World War I, leaving Russian occupied Poland for Vienna in his teens and studying at the Vienna Academy of Art, a traditional Academic school. After World War I, Mr. Taubes studied in Munich, Germany, and was exposed to “new” styles such as Cubism, Surrealism, German Expressionism, and Dada.
His focus changed from Classical Old Master studies to works by Cezanne, de Chirico, Otto Dix and Georg Grosz; he was accepted into the art program at Weimar’s Bauhaus. There, he learned a geometric approach to art and design.
Just to show you how this mentorship thing works in the art world, Mr. Taubes’ teacher at the Bauhaus was Johannes Itten (1888-1967) a teacher of techniques and the craft of painting who authored an important book on color (“The Art of Color: The Subjective Experience and Objective Rationale of Color,” 1973). Mr. Itten associated seasonal color palettes with four types of people, a theory adopted by the cosmetics industry later.
In 1930, in the midst of the Depression, Mr. Taubes moved to New York City, and because only the very wealthy were buying art, he painted portraits for wealthy society women. He began to teach after World War II. Portraiture was no longer the vogue, and he began to study the Old Masters yet again. He published books on the craft of the Old Masters, and developed new pigments, based on the pigments used in the 14th and -15th centuries.
Mr. Watson was a student of Mr. Taubes in the Midwest, and Mr. Taubes’ attention to the technique and geomantic style of his youth influenced Mr. Watson, who found his life oeuvre in Surrealism.
Mr. Watson moved to Berkeley and painted in that radical art scene in the 1950s and 1960s. He illustrated for Ray Bradbury (“The Martian Chronicles,” 1953), and had shows at Gumps and at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor.
If Mr. Watson’s teacher Mr. Taubes was a product of World War I, experiencing the subsequent new direction in art away from the Academic style that represented the Old World, Mr. Watson was a product of World WarII, with that new direction toward unreal Realism (surrealism), geometric abstraction and self-expression (Abstract Expressionism) after the tragedies of World War II.
When you can sense the mentor behind the student you can see the pedigree in works of art. And you’ll see the influences of the era on both the mentor and the student.
When I am called to value an artist’s collection of art, I find works by his/her teachers and mentors in that collection.
G.F.’s collage is valued at $800.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.