Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Rodrigue on Monet

In 1993 George Rodrigue and I went to Paris. We recently were dating, and I was relishing this artist-at-my-fingertips. Today I tend to take that access for granted, and I have to remind myself that not everyone has this sort of expertise along while visiting a museum or watching Frida or just sitting at home perusing an art book. (I should mention that I gave up on art magazines long ago, because I grew tired of hearing George groan that everything looks the same, and because eventually I started to agree with him --- all somewhat ironic given the nature of this blog.) But back then I pinched myself daily, and I had questions and discussion topics at the ready, lest the relationship crumble that very afternoon.

Our first stop was a small museum located in the Tuileries Gardens, the Orangerie, a building Claude Monet chose to house his Water Lilies. I have to admit that it wasn’t high on my list. I was only a few years out of college, and I still had some of that university art class cynicism rolling around in my head. My roommate slept on Monet bed sheets, and another friend had Monet posters that matched her coverlet, and another had a Monet beach towel. In the store I had seen placemats and coffee cups and dishes, not to mention t-shirts, neckties, and umbrellas. Didn’t all of this commercialism diminish something? I mean, wouldn’t it be impossible to toss the prettiness, the decorative kitsch, the trendy everybody’s-favorite-artist aside and look at these paintings with fresh eyes?

Something terrible had happened to me, and I didn’t even know it. Although (thank goodness) the affliction seemed to come and go, for the most part I had lost my ability to see.

We walked into a smallish room with four or five enormous mural-type paintings surrounding us. The canvases just fit the space, and they curved along with the walls, so that George and I formed the pupil of an eye as we sat on the single bench at the room’s center. We were the only visitors.

I am ashamed to admit that on first glance I was unimpressed. All I saw was wallpaper. We sat in silence, and George stared until I couldn’t take it anymore:

"What do you see? What are you looking at? I mean, I get it --- he was painting the reflections, the light, the impression left on the water. And yes, it’s beautiful to look at. But what does it say? What’s the big deal?”

And with that, he began to tell me about Monet. He said that Monet paved the way for all of the art following him, for Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism, Pop, and even the art of Rodrigue himself. He made me see that before Monet no one had painted a landscape, or in this case a pond of water lilies, without a horizon line. There was no foreground or background. There were no boundaries framing a subject or a narrative. There was just reflection. There was just the duplication of what Monet really saw ---- not what he manufactured, not what he would see were it an ideal day or a perfect world, but what he actually saw without the influence of the rules of art or established ideals or the opinions of others, even if the result was something unrecognizable, a mere ghost of the tangible thing. No one had ever done that before. Imagine that.

We sat for three hours and talked about these paintings. I fell in love with them, and the appreciation grew in me for what Monet had accomplished, for the creative genius behind his innovation, for the shock he gave the art community of his day, and for the gift he left the world.

On the way out we stopped in the museum shop where I bought a Monet desk calendar and a book of postcards.

I’ve seen many Monets at many museums since, but none that matched the Orangerie paintings. Just today George and I visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where their collection of large-scale Monet Water Lilies is on view. They too are slightly curved, and the museum’s exhibition echoes the Orangerie, displayed on curved walls in a single room with a center bench. This time, of course, there were crowds of visitors, so my hopes (and I had them) of recreating that momentous afternoon sixteen years ago were squashed quickly. But I think that even if we had been alone, it still wouldn’t have been the same. I asked George about it.

“Something’s not right,” I said.

“Well…..these aren’t the same paintings. Monet saved the best for France.”

And so he did. Don’t get me wrong; it’s still an important show and absolutely worth the visit. But I’d be lying if I said that those old wallpaper feelings didn’t start creeping up on me again. I hung in there, however, and I stayed longer. I closed my eyes, and I let my mind picture the aging Monet tending his gardens. I tried to imagine what he saw. And when I opened my eyes, I saw more clearly, and like a dragonfly (as the New York Times review put it), my eyes darted from here to there over the colors and in and out of the depths, until I soaked it all in at once.

It may not have been the philosophical and wholly memorable experience of the Orangerie, but the denouement came nonetheless: there is absolutely nothing wrong with appreciating a beautiful painting.


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Monday, October 26, 2009

Two Publishing Stories: The Cajuns and Blue Dog

The Cajuns of George Rodrigue

By 1975 George Rodrigue was painting forty canvases a year, all scenes of Cajun folk-life stemming from his first painting with people, Aioli Dinner (1971), and incorporating the distinctive oak trees from his landscapes as well. Although he had a gallery in Lafayette, Louisiana, he was selling most of his work on the road in Houston, Dallas, Shreveport, Birmingham, Jackson, and other towns, usually from the trunk of his car, to collectors he met on referral from various contacts, especially restaurant and jewelry store owners that hung his prints in their businesses.

But when his son André was born in 1975, George wanted to find new clients without having to travel so much. He tried to get gallery representation, but there just weren’t many options in those years, especially in the South, and his efforts in New Orleans were unsuccessful.

Out of nowhere, opportunity knocked. Oxmoor House, which publishes Southern Living Magazine among other things, approached George about a book. Based in Birmingham, Alabama, they were familiar with George’s paintings and thought they might work well in the large-scale format books they were printing at the time. (They had just published Jericho: The South Beheld, by James Dickey and Hubert Shuptrine, one of the greatest southern publishing success stories ever).

George jumped at the idea, despite the catches: He would have to write the book himself, pay for the paintings to be photographed and for transparencies, and fund the project with a $75,000 commitment in book purchases. It was late afternoon on the Friday of Labor Day weekend, and he had $400 in the bank. He wrote a hot check to the publisher and spent the weekend knocking on doors of collectors (paintings-for-sale in hand), knowing he had to cover the check by the time the bank opened on Tuesday morning. He made some of it and borrowed most of it, using his hometown connections.

George still pulls this kind of stuff off today ----figuring out how to make something happen even when the odds seem long (or impossible) to the rest of us. The new Rodrigue Gallery on Royal Street in New Orleans comes to mind, as does his former studio on Jefferson Street in Lafayette, Louisiana (pictured below, 1978..... be sure and notice Tiffany crossing the road), which he doubled in size by jacking the first floor up fifteen feet and building a new floor underneath, as does his successful career as an artist, including the Blue Dog paintings (everyone said he was crazy). Heck, even our marriage seemed like a long shot to many.

He spent the next week writing the book and hired a translator for the French text, which he incorporated alongside the English. The oversized book features more than one hundred paintings with George’s detailed descriptions. The Cajuns of George Rodrigue (1976) was the first book published nationally on the Cajun culture, and it caught the eye of the Director of the National Endowment for the Arts, who showed it to Rosalynn Carter. Mrs. Carter then chose the book as an official White House Gift of State during President Carter’s administration.

George was ecstatic. The book’s accolades were impressive, and he had elevated his resume considerably. But the $75,000 was a problem. At the time he was selling paintings on average for between $500 and $5000, and there was no way he could count on these sales to cover his debt. He came up with a plan.

In exchange for his investment, Oxmoor House sent George his share of the books ---2,500 copies to be exact. He would sell these to get the money. But where? There were only four bookstores in the entire state of Louisiana, and this was long before Barnes and Noble or the internet. And think about this ---- 2,500 large-scale hardcover books weighing four pounds each, delivered all at once on giant wooden pallets to his house by a semi-truck. It was daunting.

But George Rodrigue is creative in all things, and this is just the kind of situation he relishes. He found and purchased a mailing list for every French teacher in the country and put together a mailer and order form. He recruited several friends and their kids to process the payments (again, no computers…so there were a lot of envelopes and a lot of checks), as well as pack and ship the books. The orders poured in.

At the same time he convinced area banks to offer the books for sale alongside their teller windows, with a special price for new checking accounts (remember the days before drive through windows and automatic tellers, when we all went inside the bank on a regular basis, and they gave away free toasters?).

Within two months he had made enough money to repay his loans. Within six months he felt the book’s effect on his painting sales. It impressed potential buyers and oftentimes helped him close a sale. He sold more paintings than ever. And he raised his prices.

Also because of this book, George was commissioned in 1976 to create a painting as a gift from the state of Louisiana to the President of France, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, an honor that increased his reputation internationally. (Pictured below: George Rodrigue with French President d’Estaing and former U.S. Congressman James Domengeaux, President of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL))

Most important, because of The Cajuns of George Rodrigue, George learned the power of publishing. It was books that would sell his paintings. It was books that would make him famous.

Blue Dog

In March of 1992 journalist Bridget O’Brian interviewed George Rodrigue and wrote an article for the front page, center column of The Wall Street Journal. Although George had no control over the content, Ms. O’Brian did ask him if he had any one special request. George said,

“Please say that I’m looking for a publisher.”

And so she did.

I remember the day this article came out. It was called “How Many Dogs Can Fetch Money?” and it caused the gallery telephone to ring off the wall for a month. It also meant my home phone in California was ringing by 5:00 a.m. that morning. I ran to the Carmel Drugstore and bought ten copies. Two men in line asked me about it, and I beamed as I showed them the Blue Dog on the front page. They asked me to sign their newspapers. It was my first autograph request, and I was flabbergasted.

In addition to clients and reporters, we received dozens of calls from publishers and one call from an agent, Rosalind (Roz) Cole. George made an appointment and flew to New York.

He also was intrigued by her client list, Andy Warhol and Olivia de Havilland to name a few, as well as her residence, the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. And then there’s her phone number, which she rattled off as 212-ELdorado 5- 5555.

Mrs. Cole had several interested publishers lined up, and the challenge began: What kind of book should this be? Will people really want a book of just Blue Dogs? What is a Blue Dog? Is this a children’s book? Who will write it? What kind of text should it have? How much will people pay? How many should we print?

I wasn’t in on those meetings, but after years of working with publishers I can imagine what it was like. George was frustrated and he had no idea how difficult it would be to convince the New York book world that his concept --- specifically his Blue Dog paintings reproduced in book form --- was marketable to a large audience.

Finally, Viking Penguin made the commitment. By this time more than a year had passed. George and I were dating, and I found myself in on meetings and decisions.

The first was at Viking’s offices in New York City in the fall of 1993. They had agreed with George on a concept, a book called Blue Dog, featuring his paintings along with a mostly fictitious story dreamed up by George and author Lawrence Freundlich. We sat in a boardroom at a large rectangular wooden table (I had no way of knowing that, between publishers and attorneys, I would sit at dozens, maybe hundreds of these tables in the coming years). Also at the table with us was Roz Cole, Lawrence Freundlich, and a whole team of editors and art directors and project coordinators and marketing strategists, and who knows who else from Viking. They began to tell us about the book.

It would be small, with a heavy paper cover, and it would retail for no more than $20.

The Rodrigue group looked at each other. George wondered if he’d gone through all of this effort for nothing. They still didn’t get it, and now his big opportunity was fizzling into a cheap reflection of their inability to see.

And then something amazing happened. The back door opened and this larger-than-life, boisterous man burst in. He was holding a blue dog stuffed animal, something he’d ordered from a friend who manufactured toys (and something George has never made nor wanted to make, but at the time was quite effective). He was Peter Mayer, the publisher and founder of Viking Penguin, and he was overcome with enthusiasm for the Blue Dog book. His team sheepishly repeated their plan. They barely got past the words, “paperback and $20,” before Mr. Mayer interrupted and declared,

“You’ve got this all wrong. This guy’s art is fantastic! He deserves the best book we can produce. It will be hard cover and $50. It will have a slip case and special features inside, maybe even a hologram.”

He slapped George on the back and left. Mr. Mayer was probably in the room for less than five minutes, and yet he changed the entire concept into something innovative, sophisticated, and utterly artistic.

Blue Dog's first printing was 5,000 copies in the fall of 1994. To date, it's been printed in five languages and sold more than 200,000 copies. It is a phenomenon and indeed a legend in the world of art book publishing --- something people still talk about when we visit New York and meet new publishers.

Since Blue Dog, George has worked with publishers Stewart, Tabori & Chang (STC), Harry N. Abrams, and Sterling to produce nine more books. He’s grown confident in the publishing arena and embraces the books as works of art in and of themselves (my favorites, in addition to Blue Dog, are Blue Dog Man published by STC in 1999 and the gorgeous chrome tome Prints published by Abrams in 2008).

Producing these books is as integral to George's career as painting itself, and with the book The Art of George Rodrigue (Abrams, 2003), he finally saw the publishing world take him seriously enough to print an art book in the traditional sense, a career retrospective with a critical text by art historian Ginger Danto.

Overall, even with its challenges the publishing experience has been a good one. We’ve made lasting friendships, worked on some significant projects, and look forward to our yearly New York pow-wow with Roz and the publishers. There's no doubt that the books have enhanced George's career and reputation.

As a matter of fact, we’re in New York now for a book signing event and various meetings. I leave you with a picture of the great publishing agent, author, artist, and relationship advice columnist Roz Cole (taken last winter, but it's my favorite). None of this would have happened without her.


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Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Creative Competition in Two Parts

Part I

I grew up in an artistic household in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. My parents, although originally from New Orleans, settled there when my dad was stationed at Eglin Air Force Base. In the first ten years of their marriage, they lived and traveled all over Europe and Asia with the military, and by the time we moved to FWB, they had collected the objects I treasure most today: the Italian wine glasses, the Oriental screen, the Persian prayer rug, the rubbing from a Buddhist temple, the grandfather clock, and the King’s chair.

They divorced when I was six, and my dad went on to other exotic locales (eventually returning to FWB), while the three girls --- my mother, sister, and I --- established an utterly feminine planet in our condo on the beach, filled with this collection of worldly, creative things. In addition, my mom painted --- on canvas or the furniture or stained glass or the walls --- always in shades of turquoise and bright red. It was a colorful, warm, and girly home, covered in not only her paintings, but also the ones she traded with fellow artists at neighboring booths at the Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival or the Pensacola Art Fair. She won ribbons most years and celebrated afterwards with friends on our balcony overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, toasting her success with homemade sangria or hot buttered rum (depending on the time of year). Later she would turn those ‘winners’ into note cards, (easily created at her place of business, Vitro Press), which my sister and I tied with ribbon as gifts for her friends and our teachers the following Christmas.

Along with art, our house was full of music. I can’t think of those days without hearing in my head Bob Dylan or Charlie Rich or Neil Diamond or Gordon Lightfoot, and I certainly can’t think of those days without remembering the music lessons. Piano, guitar, flute, piccolo, banjo --- I played them all. I even took harmonica lessons. My mom played piano nearly every day, as did my sister Heather (along with the French horn, poor thing), and around the holidays we were a dreadful but enthusiastic family band, with two at the piano and the other playing any handy instrument (or just dancing around the room ---- yes, we had the dance lessons too).

But if there was a downside to all of this music, it was the competition, specifically the dreaded ‘chair’ in band (it’s a well-known fact that teenage female flautists are fiercely competitive), and worse, far worse, the twenty students and parents gathered in Mrs. Ungerer’s living room for the annual piano recital. All I remember are the years I froze (possibly every year, now that I think about it), forgetting my memorized Beethoven or Mozart and falling back once again on “Linus and Lucy” from A Charlie Brown Christmas, the only music I recalled (and still recall) under pressure.

I guess that’s the nature of competition: for someone like my mom, cause to celebrate; for someone like my bmx-riding nephews (I’ll dote on them in some future blog just after a big race), pure adrenalin rush and, okay, the giant trophy; and for someone like me, terror followed by humiliation.

Part II

But what about George Rodrigue? He grew up an only child with older, traditional, and devoutly Catholic parents. They lived in a red brick house built by his father in downtown New Iberia, Louisiana, with white walls, American country furniture, The Shadow, Green Lantern, and Lone Ranger on the radio, and not a painting or print in the place. He entered exactly two competitions in his life, and neither one was cause for celebration, excitement, or anxiety.

The first was in New Iberia in 1952. The Sears/Roebuck catalogue store sponsored a coloring contest for area schoolchildren. George was in the third grade; he colored everyday in anticipation; and he was focused on the prize --- a child’s tool set.

His mom took him to the catalogue store, where they picked up the outlined drawing from Mrs. Leblanc, the manager. When George returned to submit his picture, he learned that they already had a winner, little Ross LeBlanc, nephew of Mrs. LeBlanc. Today, big kid that he is (and I truly mean that in the most endearing possible way), George is still bitter, because no one could color better than George Rodrigue in the third grade, and because he really, really wanted that tool set.

Far worse, in my opinion, was an area competition held at the Morgan City Civic Center, about sixty miles southeast of Lafayette, Louisiana, where George was living at the time. It was 1969, and George, at age twenty-five, was recently back from the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. He was searching for his style as a landscape artist, occasionally dabbling in other things as well (such as the portrait below from photographs of a model at art school).

His work changed a great deal during this time because of a conversation with a famous local architect, A. Hays Town. Through a mutual friend, George met Mr. Town and brought him paintings like the ones below.

Town told him,

“I want you to start over. You’ve got to treat your canvas like it’s a jewel. If it’s precious to you, it will be precious to others as well.”

In all of his years at art school, no one had ever talked about art in this sort of abstract way. It completely changed George’s thinking, and his next painting looked like this… (12x16, 1969)

He entered it in the Morgan City Louisiana Art Competition. The painting was to hang alongside other entries in the Civic Center for a month, during which time the public could visit and the works would be judged. After a month without word, George assumed he lost and went to pick up his painting. The director told him,

“I’m sorry Mr. Rodrigue, but we had to disqualify you. This painting never hung in the art show.”

“But why?”

“Well, we assumed you did not understand the rules. The competition was for living artists only.”

George protested of course, “But I’m alive! I painted it!”

She stared at young George and asked him to leave, arguing that the work obviously was an antique painting.

On his way out, George glanced at the winning paintings, nearly every one of which featured giant magnolia blossoms. He never entered another art contest.

But the wise words of A. Hays Town stayed with him, and George paints in the same way today, with deliberate, careful strokes, the bi-product of this jewel-type treatment so that each piece of art, as he creates it, is the most important and precious work he’s ever painted. (pictured, 20x24 from 1970, 48x60 from 2009)

Although he never again entered a competition, George did judge the New Iberia Sugar Cane Festival Art Contest in 1972. His Aioli Dinner was on display for a short time that year at the New Iberia Library, and this qualified him as a local art celebrity. He remembers fondly that Mrs. Keene, his childhood art teacher, stopped by the exhibition and beamed with pride as he judged the art.

Almost forty years later, George is ready to try again --- not with an entry, but with his own contest for Louisiana high school seniors. This time he’s formulated the concept himself, including a theme, Louisiana: The State We Love; scholarship money awarded through his foundation; and even a venue for exhibition (winning entries will hang on the walls of George Rodrigue’s French Quarter Gallery for three weeks next spring). What will he look for in judging these works? The foundation's website lists several categories, all of which I’m sure he’ll take into consideration. But if you’re reading this, and you’ve decided to go for it, remember these tidbits:

-George Rodrigue was confused and offended when he was disqualified from an art contest simply because his work did not look like everyone else’s.

-He claims that the only artist to ever inspire him is Salvadore Dali, because he had fantastic, original ideas.

-The best piece of advice he ever received is to “treat your painting as though it is a jewel, because if it is precious to you, it will be precious to others as well.”

-Never, ever paint giant magnolia blossoms.

………And if all else fails, play “Linus and Lucy.”


for a related post visit "The Art Contest"

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Blue Dog: In the Beginning, 1984-1989

In 1980 a Baton Rouge investment group approached George Rodrigue for help in creating a lasting Louisiana memento, a book of Louisiana ghost stories to be sold at the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans. Author Chris Segura embellished forty rather gruesome tales, and Rodrigue researched regional myths and legends for appropriate imagery, resulting in Bayou (Inkwell Press, 1984). Not big on fiction, I’m not even sure if George read these stories (he doesn’t recall), which is probably a good thing, because they are wrought with macabre literary vignettes, better illustrated by Hieronymus Bosch as opposed to George Rodrigue.

When I asked George about it this week, I learned that he painted these canvases from titles and themes relating to familiar legends, completing the works long before Segura wrote the stories.

George approached the visual part of the project in a unique way, as opposed to traditional illustration. Each of the forty stories inspired one painting, which suggested a somewhat vague reference to the content. This way he had more artistic freedom and was less bound by specifics in the text.

He devoted three years to painting the forty canvases (now known as the Bayou Collection), all typical of his Cajun style, most with large oak trees and ghostly figures. But it was one story Slaughter House that launched an artistic phenomenon. The story tells (in the mildest and simplest possible summary) of an evil dog that guards a house. Despite the fact that it’s never once mentioned in the story, Rodrigue used this opportunity to paint the loup-garou, a word translated from the French as ‘werewolf,’ and a story Rodrigue heard often as a boy. (Although in his mother’s version, the loup-garou was more of a crazy wolf or ghost dog that lurked in cemeteries and sugar cane fields. His mother used to tell him that if he wasn’t good today, the loup-garou would get him tonight.)

Ironically, there is another story in Bayou, a book I find it hard to recommend, called Le Loup-garou, and for that George didn’t paint the dog at all. Instead he painted Genevievre, a beautiful Evangeline-type figure standing under an oak tree at the edge of a cornfield, showing no hint of the horrible death awaiting her at the story’s end, other than the red outlines of a wolf painted into the trim of her dress.

To paint this loup-garou, Rodrigue searched his vast photo files for a suitable image. He had many photographs of his dog Tiffany (deceased already four years at this point), and he thought that her shape and stance would work well for his purposes. Mind you, he was not trying to recreate his cute terrier-spaniel mix that lived in his home since she was a puppy ----named ‘Tiffany’ to make her feel important as the runt of the litter and the last puppy left in the box (although he has mentioned, always while laughing, that she was a mean little dog, snipping at friends and eating the furniture). More than anything, Tiffany was his studio companion. George paints sometimes all night, and no one else sat up watching, but Tiffany did, and he snapped hundreds of photos of her over the years just by grabbing his camera, leaning off of his stool, and capturing her expression as she stared up at him at his easel.

Although I’ve calmed down about it in recent years, early on at the gallery on Royal Street and in Carmel, I felt this desperate need to convince people that this painting was in no way representative of or even suggestive of Tiffany, the family pet --- a compendium that reduced the painting's significance to nothing more than a pet portrait or a memorial. The photo of Tiffany, no question, was important, but it was all about the strong shape. In George’s design, the loup-garou, not Tiffany, was the subject of the painting. It was not a small dog sitting at someone’s feet or in the background. And never, in all of the years and hundreds of Blue Dog paintings since, has it suggested “Where’s Waldo?’’

Rodrigue’s dog image is out front and center, painted like a person, locked in. As with all of his paintings, whether Cajun people or trees or other objects, there is the strong sense of deliberateness --- that if one tried to move the dog just a little bit to the left or right or up or down, then the entire composition would lose its coherence. In a sense, it would also lose its simplicity. George’s paintings look simple because they’re so complicated. Every detail of design and color is specific; there’s no randomness, and there’s no room for change.

Now that he’d found his loup-garou shape, Rodrigue created his design and drew his sketch. It was time to paint. The dog stands on tomb-like stepping stones leading from a red haunted house. The original loup-garou, as explained by his mother, said nothing about the dog being blue. Rather, George thought that the dark night sky would cast a blue-grey shade on the dog’s fur. As a late decision he made the eyes red, further suggesting the devil-dog legend. (pictured: Watchdog 40x30 inches, from 1984, the first Blue Dog painting)

The resulting painting did not cause an overnight sensation in the art world, or in the gallery, or among his friends, or anywhere in the public. But it did haunt George. He liked this strong figure and its odd color, a powerful shape that held its own without being a tree or a Cajun figure. There’s a common misconception that George painted the Blue Dog and immediately stopped painting Cajuns and never explored other ideas. It is true that over the next five or six years he painted dozens of these loup-garous, always in bayous, always reminiscent of that childhood tale.

But at the same time he continued his Cajun paintings (pictured below, the large paintings (8-15 feet): Fais do-do in 1986, Hank Williams in 1987, Louisiana Cowboys in 1988).

And his reputation as a portrait artist expanded greatly during this period. (pictured below: President Ronald Reagan: An American Hero 40x30 inches, from 1988 and George H.W. Bush with his Grandchildren 36x48 inches, from 1989, both commissioned by the Republican National Party. For more information see the post Reagan, Bush, and Gorbachev: A Story)

For those of you wondering, yes he did paint President Bill Clinton as well, at the request of the Democratic National Party, however that was much later, in 1997, and better saved for another post.

It wasn’t until an exhibition of sixty Rodrigue paintings in Los Angeles in 1988 that George first heard a new phrase. Up until that point, he called the image loup-garou, and he thought of its grey-blue color as the logical choice, given the atmosphere of these works. However, at this exhibition he overheard gallery visitors refer to the ten or twelve loup-garou paintings as ‘Blue Dogs.’ George says that his first reaction was, “Blue Dogs? What are they talking about?” He really had no idea that people looked at his loup-garou in this way. (pictured: Man's Best Friend, 30x24 inches, 1988)

The show was a sell-out ---the Cajuns, the Landscapes, and the Blue Dogs (which after this were no longer part of the Cajun paintings, but rather took on a category of their own). George left that show with a lot to think about. He was shocked that it took a California audience to recognize this new, strong phenomenon in his work.

When he returned to Louisiana and to his easel, he experimented. The first simple but important step towards changing a loup-garou into a blue dog was the eyes, which he changed from red to yellow. The other changes, and there are many, took place over the next twenty years, resulting in an image that no longer resembles or even suggests its dark roots. Each change, each period of development, deserves its own round of images and its own detailed blog. Believe it or not, I’ve barely touched on the history here. (pictured: Dog in a Box, 30x40 inches, 1990)

I’ll end with an anecdote:

Last year during the Rodrigue retrospective at the New Orleans Museum of Art, I struggled with how to explain the Blue Dog to children. It’s hard to make people understand that this is something George invented. Although Pop in nature, it is unlike Andy Warhol, who took everyday commercial products such as Brillo Boxes and Dollar Bills from the popular culture and inserted them back into that same culture as a piece of art. In George’s case, he invented the image itself --- a non-commercial, completely unique painted illusion, which he introduced to the public from the very beginning not as a cartoon, not as a stuffed animal, not as a mouthpiece, and not even as a logo, but always, only, as a piece of art.

For these kids who grew up always knowing about the Blue Dog (and even for many adults who just forget life-before-blue-dog), the explanation is a challenge. To make a dent, I would tell them

“Imagine if you each had a piece of paper and a crayon, and I asked you to draw the bogeyman. What would you draw?”

Blank faces.

“I believe you would each draw something different. That was George’s challenge with the loup-garou. There was no picture of what it looks like. He created it from his head. And in turn, he created the Blue Dog.”

And then I see light bulbs going off, and I imagine that I hear their thoughts:

“If he can do it, maybe I can too…..”


For a complete history of the Blue Dog, following this post see (2) Blue Dog: The Ghost of Tiffany, 1990-1992, (3) Blue Dog: Out of Control, 1993-1995, (4) Blue Dog Man: 1996-1999, (5) Blue Dog 2000, The Year of Xerox, (6) Blue Dog: The Abstract Paintings, 2001-2003, (7) Blue Dog: The Dark Period, 2006-2007

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Aioli Dinner and a Cajun Artist

The first time I saw the original Aioli Dinner, I was struck by its monochromaticity. It is a green painting through and through. You don’t notice it in a photograph and certainly not in a print (as explained below), but the painting itself exudes the swamp, and one almost feels the mugginess, smells the sweat, and feels the mosquitoes biting.

Probably his most famous Cajun painting, the Aioli Dinner (1971, 32x46 inches) is George Rodrigue’s first painting with people. It is based on the old Creole Gourmet Societies, in their heyday between 1890 and 1920 when they met each month on the lawn of a different plantation home in and around New Iberia, Louisiana. The six hour meals included a lavish spread, cooked by the women standing along the back, served by the young men standing around the table, and enjoyed by the seated gentlemen, each with their own bottle of wine. The very French meal was not the Cajun cuisine one would expect. In fact, the men did not claim to be Cajun at all. They were French, and their cuisine was Creole.

(Although these definitions have taken on expanded meanings over the years, in nineteenth century Louisiana the term 'Creole,' as applied to a person, refers to someone of usually French or Spanish parents who was born in the Louisiana Territory before the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The term ‘Creole,’ as applied to the food, refers to the cuisine of the French high society living in Louisiana. The term 'Aioli' refers to a garlic-butter sauce.)

After three years of painting landscapes, George began to wonder, What would a person look like who walked out from behind one of my trees? He decided that they would be primitive, like the land. They would be a timeless resident. Is it 1800 or 1900? Perhaps they would be ghosts, floating and caught --- by the trees, by the land, and by their heritage.

(pictured, Cajun Bride of Oak Alley; for its history visit here)

To capture this he broke numerous rules of art, the most obvious of which is his use of light. With his landscapes the light shined in the distance, underneath the trees. This continued in his Cajun paintings, but he began to look at this light with a broader symbolic connotation. He saw the light as the hope of a displaced people -----the hope for their future in a new world, in the swamps and prairies of South Louisiana. After the 1755 Grand Dérangement, the Cajuns thought they would be welcome in New Orleans. Yet New Orleans society could not be a home to these farmers, and so they traveled west on the Bayou Teche and made Acadiana their home, supporting the big city of New Orleans with cattle and crops.

You might remember from an earlier post that George’s mother never claimed to be Cajun. She was French. This is true of the members of the Creole Gourmet Societies as well. As late as the 1970s, the word ‘Cajun’ was considered to be a derogatory label among the French and Canadian settlers. A Cajun was poor and ignorant. A Cajun worked hard and lived off of the land. When George announced to his mother after completing the Aioli Dinner that he is a ‘Cajun Artist,’ she was offended and begged him to reconsider this label.

(Most of the country had never heard the word ‘Cajun’ in 1971. In fact, in 1976 George was introduced at his own gallery exhibition in Boston as a 'Ky-yoon' artist. He credits Chef Paul Prudhomme and his blackened redfish, along with the McIlhenny Family and their Tabasco sauce with getting the word out.)

But George is proud of his Cajun heritage (as are thousands of Cajuns today), and his years of art school in California increased that sense of nostalgia. He saw his heritage fading before his eyes, unable to resist a modern world, and he strove to capture it ---- ironically, with a contemporary and radical approach to art. In his words, he would “graphically interpret the Cajun culture on canvas.”

And so these people, the ones who walk out from behind a tree in a Rodrigue painting, are not hidden in the shadows of heavy branches and drooping moss, as one would expect. Rather they shine with an unnatural light; they are framed by the tree, their heads never touching the sky. They are cut out and pasted onto their landscape, just like they were removed from Nova Scotia and inserted into South Louisiana. Most importantly, in every Rodrigue painting the Cajun people glow with their culture.

In the six months it took him to paint the Aioli Dinner, George developed many of these ideas, and he honed his abilities as a portrait artist. His grandfather’s face alone took him three days. After finishing this painting, he moved forward as a different artist.

Ironically, after three years and hundreds of versions of landscape paintings, George wasn’t sure how to tackle the Aioli Dinner's foreground. He was, however, confident in the design, dividing the canvas into a strong diagonal. I was surprised when I saw the original painting at how the ground treatment almost seems like an afterthought, as if George said, “Whew, I finally got through all of these portraits; now I can just knock out this grass.” The truth is that he had not yet found his comfort zone when it came to painting large areas of ground.

He chose the Darby House as the setting for his painting, because in his research of these Gourmet Clubs, it was the only one referenced that was still standing in 1971. The house was in bad shape (and has since burned down), but it was a grand estate in its day. In addition to George’s grandfather, Jean Courrege (seated front left, and looking at us), Octave Darby, the owner of the house, makes an appearance, as does George’s uncle, Emile Courrege (the young boy standing third from the left and cocking his head to the side).

It’s interesting to note that never at one time were all of these men at one meal together. George placed them that way, using a combination of photographs from various dinners. I guess it could be described as a dinner of ghosts. The only time they all got together was in George’s painted illusion.

The history of the painting itself, content aside, is also quite interesting. When George finished the Aioli Dinner in late 1971 he put a big price on it ($5,000, far higher than the several hundred dollars he was now charging for landscapes), because it took him six months, and because he knew immediately that he’d created something significant. It hung on the wall for sale in his gallery in Lafayette, Louisiana for fifteen years, and as he raised other prices, he raised this one accordingly. It was always the most expensive painting in his gallery. When the Zigler Museum in Jennings, Louisiana asked to borrow a Rodrigue for display, George pulled the Aioli Dinner off the market and sent it to this historic house in a small Cajun town, where it hung for more than ten years.

By the early 1990s the Blue Dog paintings broadened George’s appeal, and museums made regular requests. He loaned out the Aioli Dinner numerous times over the years, still not quite sure what to do with this painting, his Cajun masterpiece. Finally, about five years ago he gave the work to his sons, André and Jacques, and they placed it on permanent loan with the New Orleans Museum of Art, where it hangs most of the time today, currently on the walls of the balcony gallery with other American landscape paintings such as Asher B. Durand and George Inness.

The Aioli Dinner has continued to inspire George over the years. He painted several versions of these dinner scenes during the 1970s and 1980s, and in 2001 he reinterpreted the scene with the Blue Dog, in Family Business for the Xerox Collection.

George made several print versions of the Aioli Dinner, but it was a problem from the beginning. The painting’s overall green tone lead to large black areas in early lithographs, and much of the subtleties were lost. Finally, in 1992 he tried a new approach. He created a 30x40 inch direct image transfer of the painting (essentially a photograph glued to masonite board). He then repainted the entire work on top in lighter and more contrasting tones, removing much of the green, and approaching the foreground with the confidence and skill that he developed over the previous twenty years. He photographed the re-worked piece and eventually (in 2003) used the new transparency to make a fine art silkscreen. The resulting print is far superior in color and clarity to the earlier versions.

Interestingly enough, George now found himself with an extra Aioli Dinner. He couldn’t resist including the Blue Dog (after all, it was as if he’d left room for it all those years ago). He called this ‘new’ original Eat, Drink, and Forget the Blues, a piece he made for his own collection, never translating it into print form.

The Aioli Dinner continues to inspire not only George, but others as well. In depicting one tradition, it encapsulates a unique and some would say dying culture, one that remained intact and isolated longer than most within America. In 1971 George Rodrigue set out to record this culture, to “graphically interpret Southwest Louisiana and the Cajuns,” and for the next twenty years that is exactly what he did. And yet I would argue that, even if he had changed directions after completing this one painting, he still would have met that ambitious goal.


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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Early Oak Trees and a Regrettable Self-Portrait

It was on the long drives back from The Art Center College of Design in California that George Rodrigue developed his style. He’d been thinking about it for some time – about how different South Louisiana is from other places, as well as the eighteen hundred miles of cities and countryside and Americans he passed along the way.

From Los Angeles he drove Route 66, a two-lane highway that hugged the terrain, making every hill and gulley and stretch of flat land a part of the experience. And at Amarillo he broke off onto even smaller roads, traversing seven hundred miles across Texas before crossing the Sabine River and entering Louisiana.

Today, with our straight, cut-through-the-mountains highways, along with our big engines and high speed limits, it’s a three-day drive with time for several good nights’ rest in between. In the mid-1960s, however, it was a three-day drive non-stop.

Traveling alone, George had plenty of time to think….and to look. Its beautiful hill country aside, Texas is defined by its large stretches of flat land and even more so by its big sky. After many hours crossing that land and seeing that sky, George was struck by the change as he entered Louisiana. Almost immediately, it seemed to him, the sky was small. The land is flat, even sinking in spots, and there are no hills or mountains. Rather, massive oaks block the sky. The road is closed in, hidden between the trees, and the sky is small, visible in the distance, underneath the dark branches.

The more George thought about this, the more he realized how unique this vantage point is to his state. He began to research Louisiana paintings, particularly landscapes and other outdoor scenes, with trips to the Louisiana State Museum at the Cabildo, as well as the New Orleans Museum of Art. What he found was that artists painted Louisiana in a European tradition. Most paintings are two-thirds sky, with small trees and streams and cabins and cows at the bottom. Nearly every canvas shows Louisiana from a bird’s eye view. The few, such as Drysdale and Heldner, who obviously were standing on the ground when they conceived their compositions, captured Louisiana with an impressionist-type idealism.

But fresh from art school, George had Pop and hard edges and strong design on his mind. He was never a plein air painter. Although he photographed thousands of scenes of the Louisiana countryside, it was the tree and its relationship to its surroundings that stood out to him. Eventually photography would become an indispensible part of his Cajun paintings, however for the tree, the camera was an abstract tool that drove home to him the importance of this symbol and shape. (We were at a book signing recently and someone asked George which oak tree was in the painting, The Baton Rouge Oak, (2009, 60x48, pictured below), and they seemed a bit disappointed that it’s just a title. George has never painted an oak tree from a photograph in his life --- nor has he ever painted one particular tree.)

His first landscapes included other elements, such as small figures and cabins. However, he quickly dropped those in favor of the tree by itself. He broke his canvas down into three elements --- tree, ground, and sky --- and he found that the combinations were endless. For three years, from 1968 to late 1971 (when he completed the Aioli Dinner, his first painting with people….and certainly worthy of its own post), George painted hundreds of these landscapes. His style became well-defined, setting the ground work for the Cajun paintings to come (see the links under "Popular Musings" to the right of this post), and also for a later strong shape, the Blue Dog.

He pushed the oak tree to the front of the canvas and cut it off at the top so that the light shined from underneath the tree and formed an interesting shape of its own between the bottom branches and the ground. The paintings were problems, and solving those problems consumed him. For George, although the oak tree in his works always will symbolize South Louisiana, he didn’t see a tree at all. He saw (and sees) shapes. (Pictured: 1970, 1980, 2006, 2009)

This direction was very exciting for him. He was a young man in his early twenties, and he’d already discovered a completely unique path within one of the oldest and most traditional painting genres. Even today when he speaks to students, he often recalls a lecture from art school. A professor explained that art is like a yardstick. On one end is Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. On the other end is Agnes Martin and Minimalism (or solid white paint covering a canvas). To find his or her way, an artist must find a spot on that yardstick and go up. It’s something George did with his landscapes, again with the Cajuns, again with the Blue Dog, and again with series such as Hurricanes and Bodies and his recent mixed media works on chrome.

In the beginning, he hoped for enough luck to find his own direction just one time. But once he dropped his inhibitions and stopped caring about the opinions of critics and neighbors and friends (and wives!), he created only new things, uninfluenced not only by the public, but also by the art world ----by styles and labels, by what’s happening in New York or Art Basel, by what’s happening anywhere other than inside his own head.

With one exception…

George was unprepared for the negative hometown reaction to his landscapes. Most locals entered his gallery on Duclos Street (and later Pinhook Road - pictured below) in Lafayette, Louisiana with skepticism. Why are your paintings so dark? Everything looks the same. Can’t you paint anything else?

And in response to his prices ($100 on average): You’re never going to get that kind of money for those paintings.

Worse, after a cousin who worked at the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge managed to get him a show, the exhibition of seventy Rodrigue landscapes prompted George’s first newspaper review, a full page in the Sunday Advocate, with the headline: Painter Makes Bayou Country Dreary, Monotonous Place. (See the post "Museums and Critics" ).

To combat the criticism, young George painted his self-portrait.

He never offered it for sale. Rather, he propped it up in the corner of his gallery and motioned to it anytime he thought it might boost his credibility. And sure enough, as recently as the New Orleans Museum of Art’s Rodrigue exhibition last year, where it hung in a room filled with landscapes from the same period, he heard people say,
“Man, he really can paint.”

I heard them too, and I felt George’s frustration and imagined what it must have been like to have broken the mold in landscape painting and yet to be redeemed by something he saw as ordinary. He resented it, and he’s always disliked this early self-portrait (1971), so different from the hundreds of portraits he would paint over the years (see the links under "Portraits" to the right of this post), and yet still prized by many as his best. (pictured: George’s son Jacques and a local TV news cameraman at NOMA, March 2008)

George’s success provides him the freedom to paint when and what he wants most of the time. There have been periods, however, that he’s felt chained to his easel. The mid-late 1980s come to mind, when he spent countless hours painting family portraits (Aunt Lucy wants a red dress, make Mama look younger, you forgot to add the family cat…), but the money was good, and there are times when paying the bills overrides, well, almost everything.

Even today, in the slow summer months or during the current economy (or following a major real estate purchase), I see him compromising that freedom, and I hear him grumble as he heads back to the studio to finish a donation for a friend’s foundation, a cover for a book of fiction, and a ballet dancer (the three projects currently on his easel). These are the times that the end result – whether it be promoting a worthwhile cause, pleasing a friend, or, frankly, because the money will pay for an old building’s new air conditioning system -- means more than the art. These are the times that painting becomes work.

He still puts his all into it (and I know he’s glad to have the work, even though it’s not his favorite way to create), and, unlike that early self-portrait, these current projects produce rewarding results beyond the art that make it all worthwhile. He gets through them so that he can get back to painting for himself, just like one makes it through a difficult work week, knowing that Friday afternoon is waiting at the end.

As we drove back from Shreveport and the latest book signing Monday night, he started talking about his ideas, and yesterday, as he finished the last of his commissions, he ordered canvas. He’ll be painting obsessively and unreservedly by the weekend, and he’ll have a hard time breaking away when we head to New York and more book events next week.


For more Rodrigue landscapes, both early and recent, visit the posts Oil Paint or Acrylic? and Blue Dog: The Dark Period
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