If you ever walked into a commercial art gallery and felt intimidated—don’t! Most gallery owners are just glad to have a warm body in the gallery. They also know that only about 5% of the people who come in are seriously interested in buying art. Trust me, I know; I’ve gotten it straight from the horse’s mouth. And don’t think of art galleries as mini-museums. Think of them more as retail stores, because that’s exactly what they are. They sell paintings instead of clothes, shoes, furniture, etc. The most important criteria a gallery owner has when representing an artist is his ability to sell his work, not the merit of the work; that’s secondary. A gallery owner once asked me what I thought of a contemporary artist he represented. I told him the work was competent but a pastiche of impressionist paintings, down to the long dresses and parasols of the women in the paintings. “Yeah, you’re right,” he responded, “it’s not anything I’d want in my house, but he’s a nice guy and he sells well.” Do you think he tells clients or prospective buyers that?
Much of what is exhibited in commercial art galleries is bad, even terrible, but there is some good painting out there. So take a look and make up your own mind. Don’t be dictated to by gallery owners or anyone else, even me. I’m often astounded by the lack of knowledge about painting by people who run art galleries, so don’t be intimidated. Yes you say, but you’re an artist, you know about painting, what’s good. People sometimes ask me, “How do you know if a painting is good or not?” Painting is a language, an abstract language. Delacroix wrote in his journal back in the 1850’s that he could envision a day when painting would not need a subject. He, like all great painters, understood that painting is an abstract visual language. Hang a painting by Velasquez upside down and I’ll enjoy it almost as much as if it were right side up. I admit a preference for representational painting but only because I enjoy seeing how the artist uses that abstract language to interpret his subject. Still, I’d rather look at good abstract painting than bad representational work. Get an understanding of that language and you’ll no longer be at the mercy of curators, critics, gallery owners or anyone else. Let the great painters and their works inform you. Get your ass to a museum and when you feel it in your gut, you’ll know you’re on your way.
A quick analogy: Imagine trying to read Germinal by Zola in the original french; problem is–you don’t read french. You can see the printed page, can even mouth the words but you don’t understand it. The same with painting.
I feel generous today, so here are three contemporary painters whose work I like: Susan Jane Walp, Amy Weiskopf and Elizabeth Geiger. All different approaches to still-life but intelligent palettes behind their work, and all women—how ‘bout that! Interesting side note: Ms. Geiger’s husband is also a painter and has a bigger reputation, but, for my money, his wife is a better painter; a bit more honest and her paintings have bigger shoulders. Her husband is a poor man’s Fairfield Porter.