Watching the ants


Dear Artist,

A subscriber wrote, “Are there any authentic, intellectually respectable reasons for the apparent divide between the contrasting and often opposing worlds of 1) ‘serious’ contemporary painting and its practitioners, and 2) the sprawling world of proud retro painters, and their constellation of activities and venues that are ignored by prevailing learned scholars and critics the world over?”


“Surfriders” 1959
oil on canvas 26 x 36 inches
by Rex Brandt (1914-2000)

In the marvelous and diverse ant-hill of human creativity, there are many fine minds that have taken a crack at understanding and explaining the divide. It helps if you try to see some contemporary arts as a form of entertainment — and the retro-painting world as a form of craft. It’s of course proper to take the contemporary art world seriously. One ought not confuse the playful mind-bending entertainment business of Disneyland or Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum (recently sold for over a billion dollars) with the sort of mind-bending business that might be going on at your local Public Gallery. High-brow entertainment serves many purposes. It stretches turgid minds. By the use of metaphor, it shows possibilities. It speaks of the outrageous potential of human imagination. With “schlock” and “shock” it may invite polarization and even anger. Furthermore, because many contemporary works are “conversation pieces,” the cultures of criticism, journalism and scholarship are supported. “Those “learned scholars” that you mention can get in on the action.


“Cove People”
watercolour by Rex Brandt

Retro work, on the other hand, is about dedicated private individuals developing time-honoured and often difficult skills. With craft these folks go after an elusive idea known as “quality.” Retro challenges the very hubs of human sensitivity and capability. The processes and techniques of retro give unprecedented joys of accomplishment and personal satisfaction. Surprisingly, retro is not so much concerned with fashion. But the result can be fine-tuned individuality and style. Retro, when excellent, is widely admired and naturally collected. But like a lot of noble activities there’s not much to talk about, so it’s often overlooked by the media. But for both the retro artists and their retro collectors — it’s one of mankind’s highest callings.


“In Praise of Sunshine”
watercolour by Rex Brandt

Best regards,


PS: “Shock value only lasts so long.” (Robert Longo) “It is in the search for quality that the artist is, of necessity, the eternal student.” (Rex Brandt)

Esoterica: Recently we were attracted to a video-piece in the Costa Rica Cultural Center. It showed a close-up of hundreds of leaf-cutter ants scurrying from off-screen into the foreground carrying newly cut sections of green leaves. The accompanying sound track sounded like the babbling rush of humanity. Every once in a while an ant would come on the screen bearing some odd object — a flag with a peace sign, a tiny surfboard, a small Da Vinci print. The busy, jumpy images mesmerized everyone who stopped to have a look. We liked it so much we came back another day.

Robert’s guide books to understanding the art divide:


“Night Fishing”
watercolour by Rex Brandt

The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe. A short persuasive insight into the New York art world, what makes it tick, and why critics, dealers and the glitterati need something to talk about and how they can’t deal with traditional art.

The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes. An expanded version of a PBS television series on Modern Art. Many colour illustrations. Choice anecdotes, telling characterizations and witty observations. It’s bristling with insight.

Theories of Modern Art by Herschel B Chipp. Required reading in some College courses, this is a great starting point in understanding the thinking of artists. Gag-ga but investigative. Documented through personal letters, manifestos and articles, the variety of belief shows what art can be.

Art for Dummies by Thomas Hoving. No insult here. One of the for dummies series, this remarkable overview by the well-known gallery director and enthusiast shows that it’s okay to be in love with all types of art. Basic stuff you always wanted simplified and lots of privileged, no nonsense information.

This letter was originally published as “Watching the ants” on March 25, 2005.


Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, hereProceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Tension is anticipation and uncertainty. Every art has to have it.” (Rex Brandt)



  1. Thank you for posting this article again. The argument is so unnecessary and yet unceasing, going on for decade after decade, with people never seeking a broader view. It’s an example of red and blue (or green and yellow, the colors don’t matter, just the idea of ‘my side or die!’).
    As you quoted, ‘… it’s okay to be in love with all types of art.’

  2. I have been thinking a lot lately about “Quality of Thinking”. Do I allow my thoughts to wander aimlessly in directions unwanted, to dark corners and recesses that I would rather not share even with myself? Yes. Constantly at this time of year. Perhaps it was the last song on the radio that brought me to tears. Emotions of thoughtless “thought” carries with it such unnecessary anguish. Staring blindly into the abyss of past ruin, I do hear a voice, “What are you thinking about? Stop looking at it! Can’t you feel what those thoughts are doing to you?” Admonishments can continue, sometimes much louder if I let them,…”Are you lifting yourself with your thoughts, or allowing them to wander aimlessly in a downward spiral of needless ambiguity?” Re-focus now! Direct your thoughts! In a fleeting moment I see them laughing at me. They know I will do it again shortly. It is like a workout, when I am not sleeping, I should be using my brain power to help me, not hurt me. Happy January.

    New painting today on my Facebook page later today, (using self directed thoughts while practicing for Italy 2017) Join me!

  3. Can you say more about “retro” painters? How do I know if I’m one? What the heck is that? I’m blissfully unburdened by this distinction…this war of worlds. I disregard a lot of “contemporary” art which feels overly contrived and self important. But I’ve never heard of this “retro” distinction. Please elaborate?

    • Brian Dickinson on

      Hi Diana, since nobody else has I shall give you myIinterpretation.
      Rembrandt was great but that was yesterday, and so was Vincent , any looking back at least in Western Art is viewed as nostalgia.
      Contemporary art is cutting edge or something either far removed from the past or in some cases acknowledging it.
      Of course Art is about money or rather individuals with money and influence , always has been!
      Here is the best part Diana , if you happen to confront a piece of visual beauty that holds you in its thrall so words don’t invade the moment and for the remainder of your existence that moment remembered still brings a smile and pining to your inner soul ,then you can know you have seen Great Art

  4. I like a painting that doesn’t draw it out for the viewer. Take a photo or draw one. Good applied retro work takes the viewer to a place where they want to be all along. Away from the mundane conventional place we all know and love. Fiction/Nonfiction depends on where you want to be. Abstract/realism. Viewers choice.

  5. I have been working in the same geographic area for many years, over 50. I have come to the place where now I see work by people I thought, way back when, were really avant-guard (SP?) back in the beginning. Now some of the work looks dated. But some of their work has survived the test of time. These works are in the style of a past time, sort of modern but still they are good and will always be good. The artist did something right, got it well. I think that some artists are just playing a game. One might be the color game and another might be the form game and another the line game and another a mix of may forms game. The answer to this puzzle is– How well do they play the game? My husband used to ask me why I watched the same opera story over and over.
    “You already know what happens,” he said.
    The answer is the same; it is all about how well they play the game.

  6. To be right is to be lost. A right must have a wrong as a cold must have a hot. Words are an unsuitable medium for art and it’s description.
    Describe what chocolate tastes like and then actually eat it. Describe wet! Now be wet.
    Art is an experience, sometimes worthwhile and sometimes not. Education is what Robert was all about. That is how we learn the language of art in retrospect and in forward vision.

    There is no art behind or in front of us… only what is here right now.

    • The Twentieth Century was a time in the history of art devoted to deconstruction in all the arts – music, painting, sculpture, writing. The elements of each of the arts were highlighted, pushed and pulled and stretched until barely recognizable. In painting, colour, line, shape all were brought to the fore, and given their moment. Some of this work was beautiful, all of it was exciting, but it was an intellectual excercise, all of it.

      What will the Twenty-First Century bring us? Retro is in ascendency now, because it is reclaiming the whole . Art needs to be about feeling, not thinking, retro says. We need to sense the work, not think it. It should include us, not distance us. Retro is where we are, not necessarily where we’re going, but we’re new to this century, and it hasn’t claimed itself yet. So retro is reemerge going while we wait.

  7. Thank you Sara for this letter. It confirms what I have been experiencing and what I have come to know over the past year. After doing one particular series of 12 paintings (4′ x 3′) which I call my Japanese Tea Ceremony series, I wanted to show them in a public gallery, without selling them. I wanted everyone to enjoy them along with an actual Japanese Tea Ceremony. The paintings were executed in a very contemporary way vs. the Tea Ceremony, which is a very traditional expression of Japanese culture. I have come to the conclusion that, even though the paintings are executed in a contemporary way, they are still be considered too retro for a public gallery. Obviously there were other factors in the decisions of the public galleries, but I believe that this was probably an important one.

  8. I love this post Sara, I didn’t know about Rex Brandt, I really like his watercolours! Thank you for sharing Robert’s letter again.

    Was /is Brandt’s work considered retro or contemporary? Please excuse my ignorance re this.

    Thank you

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