Monday, March 23, 2009

Clamming up with John Asaro

I have long admired the work of John Asaro and been intrigued by the story of his disappearing act into a depressive mist, dropping off the LA art radar after considerable success, becoming by popular myth a recluse. Every great artist MUST have one of those periods. I am working on mine. Hope it comes soon.

So it was great to finally meet local legend John Asaro (  in person this Sunday at his Bergamot Station mega exhibition 'Bella Donna' featuring over 60 life-size figurative oils in all the colors of the rainbow, see previous post.   For a guy in his 70's, he sure  looked incredible and much younger than his years. 

This guy knows how to do high-key color and apply it to the female figure in  variously twisted  large contorted compositions. Lots of warm and cool 'color interplay' in the skin. Lots of hard edges. Lots of lost edges.  He uses red acetate glasses he told me to check his values. You can tell he is holding on to his value pattern, and then applying wild color combos on top. But he never lets go of his values. And that is what makes it all work in my opinion. Squint and it was all clear. 

Some paintings are quite 'in your face'. But I was very impressed. His art voice is original. I thought some of  his earlier work a tad too  Sorolla-esque,  many of the 'mother and child' images  and beach scenes of old, featured in his now out of print book "A New Romanticism".  NO, it will not be re-released. He is 'over' all of that now, he shared with me. Glad I got the book when I did. Offer me a good deal and it's yours.

Asaro taught a generation of LA artists at Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, from 1974 to 1981. He invented the Asaro planes of the head, head, to show how light falls on a face in plane form, still used in art schools today.  

It was good to see the show was benefiting fine art scholarships at Art Centre. It was not so good to see that only four paintings had sold as of Saturday afternoon (mostly small ones including two of his daughter which probably means he was keeping those anyway). The show was closing just three days later and we all know that most paintings in a show are sold either before the show opens by special preview or on the night of the reception.

I felt depressed for him actually. There is only one reason an artist is hanging out at  a huge gallery showing his work on a Sunday afternoon outside of a reception. To sell paintings. His show catalog, which he was graciously signing if you had paid your $30, was selling like hot cakes.

This is Asaro's big comeback. In an interesting docu-film playing at the show he said he has found his calling, painting the female figure, and through it quit depression. Dark days gone.  I personally would have expected these paintings to fly off the wall. But the prices were generally  high going all the way up $300,000 mark. Usually you have to be almost dead to command those kind of fees. I am glad he is not. 

A lot of paintings were huge. My husband said quietly to me, he should have painted them smaller. Who can hang things this big except a museum and a few billionaires? Who can afford them in this economy? Except a museum and a few billionaires. Also, those 'in your face nudes', might have put some off. Not quite right for the dining room.

Maybe sales were not his agenda. I suspect not. But this collection took three years to paint he told me. Everyone needs to eat. I loved one clip in the film where he squeezed out a whole tube of Old Holland red  on his palette in one go. He obviously gets through a lot. NO skimping on materials here.

Asaro is as superb a draftsman of the human form as any I have seen. His color is glorious. . His value range killer. His cast shadow treatment, merging in and out of the human form in shadow, magnificent. 

 So I was determined to  have a bit of a chit-chat with him. But I could see, as other people approached him, he was not effusive in nature. A man of few words for a stranger.  A bit guarded. Mine was a very one-sided chat really.  I have seen clams in hot garlic broth open up more. But I kept on at him.

Fortunately I was wearing a big hat so he just thought I was one of those menopausal crazies. He had no interest in me at all despite me clearly knowing quite a lot about him and surprising him with super-intelligent questions. Knew for instance that he had used Sara Streeter in a lot of the work, see previous post, and other tid-bits of Asaro history.  It was also obvious I knew a few people in the room and was in the art world, not a stalker.

I would have thought that would have sparked at least just one 'two-sided' sentence. A flicker of interest.  Alas, no. 

The only time I saw a real spark in him, was when one of my students who I bumped into at the show, came up to join me trying to converse with him. She is VERY beautiful, think Angelina Jolie,  and he instantly wanted to paint her of course.  Gave her his card...come up and be in my etcings...ah....the life of a male artist.  He perked right up! Charming.

To tell you how good the show was for me, after I left I found myself going back for another hour just to really study  his work again.  Now he really thought I was stalker status. There was so much to learn from him. He is still a great teacher. And Asaro's new direction in his art speaks for itself. Wonderful.

If I had the space and money, he would be hanging on my walls.


Marian Fortunati said...

Still waiting for the text... I imagine you're busy painting away, but I'd love to hear what you thought about Asaro's newer work...

These two are more beautiful than strange. As you know I LOVE his older work and admire the skill in his newer work, but thought it was a bit strange.

Marian Fortunati said...

Yes, I should have gone because I do so love his work.... maybe I would even love his new stuff. But even his "old" work... I could only afford the book and serigraphs. Oh well.

I'll live vicariously through you!

Rhonda Hartis Smith said...

I would love to Asaro's book, some of my art friends have a copy. I'll have to live through you also but I really wish I could see his show. Excellent post as usual.

Mary Aslin said...

This is a wonderful piece of writing. Thank you allowing me to "be there" through your words.

Dixie said...

I dearly love to read your articles, your British style is so cute. I consider you my Fine Arts Reporter.
Dixie Kee

Portrait Painting By Johanna Spinks said...

Thanks all..glad someone is reading this blog.

Laurel Alanna McBrine said...

Hi Johanna,

I enjoyed your amusing and witty article and feel kind of outraged on your behalf because of this guy's attitude. I love your tongue-in-cheek, ironical tale of the encounter.

Did you attend the PSA conference this year? Sadly, I had to cancel and have been wondering how it went all weekend.

Your work is looking lovely as always.

Portrait Painting By Johanna Spinks said...

Good to hear from you Laurel.

I wrote this piece a tad tongue in cheek. I have nothing but huge respect for the GREAT Asaro. And when I have a show as big and great as this, maybe I might be a tad introspective too when some crazy art nut starts bugging me.

The show and his work were amazing.

No, didn't go to PSA. Was in The South for a sitting and then Sunday in NY for unveiling. A GREAT trip.

Take care and keep posting!