You may remember a few weeks ago I wrote about a senior artist, E. J. Hughes, not attending a major retrospective of his paintings. Lately I’ve been reading an excellent transcript by Ian Thom of the correspondence that took place over a forty-year period between the artist and his dealer. Some of this stuff just blows me away. On March 9, 1962, for example, the dealer Max Stern wrote to Hughes: “In a future painting, please do not close up the landscape as you did in this case with the freighter, but let the eye travel into the distance.” On March 14 Hughes responded: “I welcome your suggestion that in future paintings I allow the eye to travel into the distance easier. I agree, and am writing it down in my notebook to make sure I remember.” He goes on: “Please let me know when something in a painting disturbs you, or on the other hand, pleases you, as we are on our own out here and seldom have anyone view my paintings before they are sent to you.”
It gets better. The dealer sometimes requests that he may cut a couple of inches from the top of a painting, “to improve the composition.” At one point the dealer asks permission to touch up and darken a foreground “to make it more harmonious to the whole.” Later he tells him to “lighten up” his colours and to leave out cars and signs from his compositions. Hughes cooperates. Thom concludes that this is an example of the partnership that exists between a dealer who understands what he can sell and the fragility of the artist whom he protects and supports.
I’m not sure how you might feel about this business. You have to remember that Hughes’ production is low — he is a laborious worker — a couple of months on some paintings. In many ways Hughes works like an amateur, unsure of his media and of himself. As a product of the Great Depression he is perennially worried about security. Both artist and dealer are of their times and driven by economic pressure. Over the years the dealer buys and resells virtually everything the artist produces — he controls and builds prices from $250.00 per canvas in 1953 to $20,000.00 at the time of the dealer’s death in 1989. Today, some of Hughes’ paintings sell in the $100,000.00 range. He is a national treasure, recipient of doctorates, a shy celebrity.
Esoterica: Hughes’ method generally starts with a small location sketch in pencil. This is enlarged to a carefully worked out pencil cartoon — often with written colour notes. This in turn is enlarged onto canvas with the use of a grid — sometimes a thread-grid to protect the drawing so that it too may be sold. Early on in their arrangement, Hughes wrote to Stern that he had made a conscious decision to be a “naïve artist.”
The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
E.J. Hughes – Progress
The value of charm
by Ian Grant
E. J. Hughes, naïf and all. But then, that’s his charm, isn’t it? This is one of those rare artists who has profited from not attending art school. I’m proud to be his neighbor (well, almost — but Cobble Hill is close).
(RG note) Actually, Hughes attended art school, and was given four grants over the years, which got him through the dirty thirties when he was doing murals and other art for free.
The joy of poverty
by Trevor Sale
“You will hear people say that poverty is the best spur to the artist. They have never felt the iron of it in their flesh. They do not know how mean it makes you. It exposes you to endless humiliation, it cuts your wings, it eats into your soul like cancer. It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent.” (exerpt from: Human Bondage — W. Somerset Maugham)
Whatever it takes
by Don McNulty
I expect some readers will find E J Hughes’ arrangement and relationship with his dealer different to say the least. Mother Art works in strange ways. Whatever it takes to create Hughes magnificent art is well worth it.
Your vision and not mine
by Philip J Carroll
Hughes and Stern certainly were products of their time. I have had dealers over the years tell me how to paint as well as clients. The last one was a New York dealer who wanted to transform me into his vision, I told him nicely to go to hell. I think the best response I ever heard was from Charles Schultz in response to others giving him advice on his work, and I paraphrase: “My work may be the only thing in this life I do well, but it is all mine and when you tell me your ideas I will never use them because they are your vision of art not mine.”
Open to criticism
by Kelly Borsheim, Cedar Creek, Texas, USA
This letter brings up a topic I struggled with last year as I endeavored to boost my art career. The harshest critics of artists who sell their work, in my experience, tend to be other artists. Seemingly “innocent” remarks range from the “I am glad I don’t have to sell so that my art remains pure,” to the more hurtful e-mail I received after my 2-person exhibit opening containing a comment from an art student: “One artist creates what sells, the other artist follows her passion.” I felt this latter comment especially insulted both of the artists and our collectors. Since I am trying to be brief here, let me ask, are artists somehow exempt from being financially responsible citizens? What is the difference between paying one’s bills by working at a non-art job and working at an art job that also fits someone else’s vision? Besides the requests of others, we all have limitations (canvas sizes, the unknown length of our lives, etc.). Perhaps creativity without limitations is simply spewing. Maybe the definition of “artist” is not so much what you do as how you do it. I opt to give E. J. Hughes the benefit of the high road and believe that he was simply open to all criticism and accepted that which he deemed valuable to his own journey of discovery. After all, he still did it his own way.
The value of a second opinion
by Susan-Rose Slatkoff
In reference to Hughes taking advice from his dealer, I am sure there will be many who will respond that the artist’s own vision is sacrosanct and should never be prostituted for sales. Many times I have taken a work to our studio community and someone has noticed something that I had completely missed. The minute they made their suggestion I heard an inner bell go off, and I knew they were right. Following their advice brought out a far richer painting. There is no reason to think that a dealer cannot have that same clarity of vision. So, my response to Hughes taking his dealer’s advice is that maybe the dealer saw something that Hughes had missed, and when Hughes heard the advice it rang that bell. I think it can be overweening ego to think that, as the artist, mine is the only eye, which can see my work. I am careful to ask advice from people I respect, and in honouring that respect I listen with an open mind. Then, with that same respect, I check in with that small still voice within, and listen to myself. By the way, what’s a thread grid?
(RG note) The use of a grid is a traditional way of copying from one to another. Both the sketch and the final work are squared off in order to better make proportions, etc. In a thread grid the drawing is done on a piece of cardboard or other hard surface and cuts are made around the edges — say every inch. Then thread is woven back and forth to form the grid. This way the integrity of the drawing is preserved.
Teeth on edge
by Angelika Ouellette, Calgary, AB, Canada
My teeth were on edge (or however one uses that phrase) when reading the part: “permission to touch up and darken a foreground”. I suppose at least Hughes’ dealer asked first. A friend of mine bought one of my abstract paintings. She loved the colour scheme; had it framed and hung it in her dining room. Then decided it needed a little something. Using a brush she painted few strokes of another colour to ‘brightened it up a bit’. I love her dearly, but every time I see that painting in her dining room I’m almost overcome by the lump in my throat, and a need to cry. There is also a desire to fix the composition. Fortunately, it was one of many studies I’d done and had not signed the front of it. (At least that is how I rationalize it…) Haven’t the guts or heart to tell her how I feel. Though the need to ‘fix the composition’ may overtake my politeness/friendship. E.J. Hughes spent months on a painting and his dealer would then ask to change some things — no wonder he chose not to participate in his own shows. For myself I believe it is the lack of respect of my own work that life has given me an opportunity to observe.
Is it worth it?
by Sherry Preston
It makes a person wonder where their artist life will lead them. I wonder if E.J. Hughes had battles inside him or if he accepted these comments and let go of the frustration that might have attached him with it.
I find I’m learning interesting things about the art world. I do not want to lose my style or myself. I am finding that if I want my art to become a business venture then I will have to find things that will work. What people are willing to buy. It is not easy selling my style of works where I am located, because of them having a unique style. I do find that artists I speak with very much enjoy my style that has evolved over the past 13 years. I have been painting for a long time and just recently started making contacts with other artists. So I am learning about how things work in the Art World. Many things have been mentioned to me. For example I was told don’t lose your style and end up painting what others want. I find I have the ability to create many images because of doing so many commissions over the years. So for me if I was to keep that thought process that I was making these images for others not for myself then perhaps I could create things that would sell. Paintings the everyday person would just have to have on their wall. It would be a strange place to be. Would I lose myself or my style inside those wants of others? Is it all worth it creating what others want? It’s interesting what E.J. Hughes was open to. How many artists are open to that and how far do they go and is it worth it?
Learning curve shifting
by Karen Fitzgerald
I get the feeling as I read your words that you have not experienced this level of collaboration with a dealer and that you find it alternately appalling and thrilling. Do such exchanges interfere with the “vision” of an artist? Do they damage it? What works? There can be no formulas here. Driven by economics as both were, the reality of knowing what sold well and what didn’t shaped the dealer’s comments. Both would have been fools to not visit such a dialogue. I have noticed in myself and my own work how interesting it gets — pragmatic concerns insert themselves regularly and these days I pay a much different attention to them than I did 10 years ago. What does that mean? Very little, except that the profile of my learning curve has shifted. Does it affect my sales? I couldn’t even begin to ascertain that, nor would I consider it something to give energy to.
(RG note) Some dealers have taste as well as commercial instincts. They also take the time to analyze compositional faults while still holding on to a respect for the artist’s vision. The really great ones are true art lovers. An artist ought to reserve the right to pay attention to a second opinion. For me it’s generally “Let ‘er rip” because I liked it when it left the studio.
by Phyllis Franklin
Thanks for sharing the correspondence between dealer Max Stern and E. J. Hughes. As a student I certainly understand the value of getting an opinion from someone else as they work as second eyes. Sometimes I think we as artists get too close to our work and can’t be objective. This recently happened to me when I made a comment about a certain work that an artist had done that was far superior to my work. My comment was that I felt the figure painting he had done appeared stiff, without movement, when the painting was about action. His comment to me was he was happy with the painting and I should paint the way I wanted to paint and he would paint his way. Of course, he is right, but I feel we should never get to the stage in our lives where we can’t see the value of the opinion of others and respond graciously to critique from all levels. I agree, sometimes critique hurts, but accepting critique in the manner E.J. Hughes did from Stern is certainly the way to respond even if you have no intention of changing anything to the current painting or future ones. If one can find that special person who can give an objective critique, then when praise critique is given, you know you have hit your target and the painting is a winner.
Tribute to a great dealer
by Jamie Lavin
Great dealers do exist, but not for everyone; that is to say, any given dealer may be a good representative for only certain artists whose personalities jive together. I just lost my Denver, Colorado dealer, who died suddenly before Christmas. In talking to the employees of the gallery, I realized, with great pride, that he and I had been friends, as well as having a business relationship. His last e-mail to me was the afternoon before he had the stroke, and it was about another commission. He was with me always, thinking of me and representing me every day of the year, for over ten years. It’s very odd when you watch and listen to the Gallery owner speak of your accomplishments and awards and anything else they think of when pitching your work in front of you, to a client. Garver made my work look fantastic when I listen to him “talk it up”- you’d have thought Rockwell and Gauguin had taken lessons from me! I have always said that if he’d have run 10 galleries, instead of just one, I’d be a rich man. Well, quite frankly, after knowing Garver, and having benefited from his expertise time and again, after having experienced many times his undiluted fairness, I guess in fact, I am rich for having known him.
Every dealer I have is special. They are all enthusiastic and directed towards their sales. Business is tough right now, but my dealers push on because they do not have time for recessions and down-time and gloom and doom. Not to say they don’t suffer some, but they all play to win, and their customers still want to buy! Great Dealers teach, mold, communicate well, request and protect their stable-mates. They may disagree and they are prone to bad days, just like everyone else. Their greatest skill lies in their ability to assure the artist and the client that both are happy through their efforts. May Garver Johnson rest in peace.
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