American Car Culture

1934 Ford Model 40 Deluxe Roadster

One of the reasons I enjoy visiting automobile museums—of which there are five that I know of in Southern California—is that classic American cars represent a culture that is so uniquely different from that of our European cousins. That 1934 Ford Roadster from the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar is brash, yet built along classical lines. Compare it with a Rolls Royce, Voisin, Maybach, Talbot Lago, or Bugatti and you will see it different from American cars in pretty much the same way that American literature is different from European literature.

There are some classic American car designs that are characterized by some restraint, but for the most part Detroit says, “Here! This is what you want! It’s you!” One feels one has to grow into a Bentley or a Hispano-Suiza: It is something to which to attain. The American model is much closer to the Id, whereas the European model is closer to the Superego.

The Pep Boys: Manny, Moe, and Jack

I was enthralled yesterday by this Pep Boys plastic logo at Oxnard’s Murphy Automotive Museum. I compare Manny, Moe, and Jack to the automobile repairman in Patrick Modiano’s novel Villa Triste: cool, detached, intellectual.

It is possible, perhaps, to carry this McLuhanesque comparison too far, but it does seem to make sense. Look, for example at the logos.

Plymouth Barracuda Logo

Can you imagine Rolls Royce calling one of its Silver Phantoms a Phan’? Or Talbot Lago, a ’Bot? Even though Rolls Royces are affectionately referred to as Rolls, the company would never abbreviate the name on one of their automobiles. Yet, Plymouth gladly adopted an abbreviated name to put on the rear bumpers of their later model Barracudas.

Now then, is the American approach any worse? It appears to sit well with the American automobile-buying public. Of course, it would be far better if the American automobiles themselves have not declined so precipitately. I have owned nothing but Japanese cars since I began to drive. Yet, looking back at Detroit products of the Golden Age, I would have had no trouble with Packard or Pierce Arrow or Duesenberg. They were beautiful cars that compared favorably with the best that Europe could manufacture.

 

Outliers: Rick Bartow, Mad River Wiyot

Deer Spirit by Rick Bartow (1946-2016)

Today, Martine and I visited the Autry National Center, which was putting on a show of the late American Indian painter and sculptor, Rick Bartow, entitled “Things You Know But Cannot Explain.” I was enthralled by Bartow’s vision of people and the wild animals whose spirits have invaded them. A member of the Mad River Band of Wiyot Indians, Bartow  lived much of his life around Newport, Oregon.

The deer spirit illustrated above is typical of Bartow’s depiction of human verging on totemic animal. Another is the drawing that gave its name to the show:

“Things You Know But Cannot Explain”

Note the face seeming to emerge from the upper right behind the foreground figure, who appears to be paralyzed with fright. Much more traditional is the drawing of three hawks below.

“Three Hawks”

I may not have a drop of Native American blood in me, but I am always delighted to see creative depictions of animals I consider to be my own personal totems, among whom I include the coyote, the raven, and the bear. Because I live at the edge of the desert and Bartow lived in the wet forests of the north, he did not depict my other totems, the frog and the turtle, both of whom I associate with life-giving rain.

Some of Bartow’s most impressive works are his sculptures. Perhaps I will do another posting on those later on. They are usually formed of wood, nails, and various found objects.

At a time when much of the art work is ruled by abstract expressionist garbage, I find Rick Bartow to be rooted in an ancient tradition that manages to speak to me today.

 

Outliers: From Slavery to the Art World

Alabama Artist Bill Traylor (1853-1949) Surrounded by His Works

Bill Traylor was born in Benton, Alabama, where his parents were slaves of a white cotton grower named George Hartwell Traylor. It was only when Traylor was in his seventies that his work began to be noticed. His first show was in 1942, when the artist was in his eighties. By this time, he had only a few years left to him.

Community Building a House

An American primitive, Traylor painted both rural and urban scenes containing people, animals, and plants. Some of his works are on irregularly-shaped backgrounds, as you can see from the top photo.

Black Couple Dancing

Some people get enthusiastic about abstract expressionism. I for one do not. Bill Traylor’s drawings speak volumes nto me. Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko do not.

 

Outliers: Czeching Out the Women

Miroslav Tichý (1926-2011) with Home-Made Junk Camera

This is one of an occasional series on alternatives to the “giants” of modern art, particularly the abstract expressionists whose work I so dislike. Today I write about Miroslav Tichý of the Czech Republic, who made his own cameras. His subject? The women of Kyjov, the town where he lived. None of the pictures for which he is noted are sharp. He seems to be intent on seeing how fuzzy his pictures can be and still communicate what he wants them to.

Women at Swimming Pool

The above photograph is a good example. It shows three young bikini-clad girls walking around the edge of a swimming pool.  It is framed by surrounding foliage including the trunk of a tree at left and bushes and leaves on three sides.

Nude with Frame

Here we have what, in the hands of a realist painter, would be a classical nude partially obscured on the lower left by an unidentified object. At first, I thought it was her leg; but it couldn’t be.

Looking at his pictures, I cannot deny that they have a certain elegance and beauty. Tichý described his methods tersely in two unconnected sentences:

  • “First of all, you have to have a bad camera”
  • “If you want to be famous, you must do something more badly than anybody in the entire world.”

As American urban slang shows, you can be bad and good at the same time.

 

The Long Shadow of Egypt

Torso of Harchebi (Archibios), Ptolemaic, 170–116 BC, Granite

The most interesting special exhibit at the Getty Center currently is the one entitled “Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World.” And the one work that caught my interest was a strange sparkling granite torso of Harchebi. I tried to take a photo with my camera, but was prevented by the guard, who pointed out that this was one of the items in the exhibit that bore a small cartouche in the corner of the description forbidding photography. No matter, I hijacked a photo from the Getty website.

The above photo does not do justice to the statue, which actually seems to sparkle. Was there mica in the granite? Perhaps.

Ptolemy VIII and Cleopatra II or III Making Offerings

I loved this exhibit, even though it was excessively crowded. Saturdays at the Getty, particularly during the summer months, can be trying. In any case, the exhibit concentrated on Egyptian art during the Greek and Roman rule of Egypt. The works were gathered from a number of sources, including the Vatican Museum, and were of consistently high quality. I may sneak back to the Getty on a weekday to take a second look.

What draws me to Egyptian art is the simplicity of the figures. When I compare them to the comparable Mayan figures, which also accompanied by hieroglyphs, the Mayan images are usually more ornate, and their hieroglyphs are more difficult to read.

Lintel 16 Yaxchilán, Mexico. In The British Museum

 

 

“A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion”

Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Image of a Wild Man and His Family (ca. 1526)

Today Martine and I went to the Getty Center and spent an afternoon viewing the art. Above is one of those late Medieval paintings whose backgrounds are almost as interesting as their foregrounds. In the background of this particular painting is a mountainous rock with a castle perched on top. It seems as if the painting were divided vertically in two equal parts. In the darker half of the painting, the male faun sits on a rock with splayed toes beside the lion he has just killed. He wields a thick quarterstaff and has large pointed ears. He looks slightly haggard.

On the right hand side, we have his wife and two children—on the same side of the painting as the castle, lake,village, and mountains in the background. All three are gentle looking and seem to belong more to the world of civilization on the right hand side of the painting than to the husband and his prey.

I love paintings like this, because one could go on forever analyzing them and trying to understand their inner meaning.

 

The Father of Modern Space Art

View of Saturn Seen from Titan

As I was growing up in Cleveland, I was deeply influenced by what I call space art. And by space, I mean outer space. For instance, the backgrounds in Forbidden Planet (1956) were a major influence on me. I was also influenced by the work of Father of Modern Space Art, Chesley Bonestell (1888-1986), who was born before the flight and Kitty Hawk and lived to see American astronauts walk on the surface of the moon. The paintings shown here are all by Bonestell.

According to the article on him in Wikipedia:

His paintings are prized by collectors and institutions such as the National Air and Space Museum and the National Collection of Fine Arts. One of his classic paintings, an ethereally beautiful image of Saturn seen from its giant moon Titan [see above illustration], has been called “the painting that launched a thousand careers.” Wernher von Braun wrote that he had “learned to respect, nay fear, this wonderful artist’s obsession with perfection. My file cabinet is filled with sketches of rocket ships I had prepared to help in his artwork—only to have them returned to me with…blistering criticism.”

Exploring Mars

In some cases, such as in the above painting, the image is contradicted by actual space photography, in this case from the Mars Rovers. Still, Bonestell’s painting is so gorgeous that maybe there is someplace else in the universe that looks like this.

Image of Chicago With a Dry Lake Michigan

Perhaps the work of Bonestell doesn’t do much for many art critics, but it showed me that there were more things on heaven and earth than were dreamt of in my philosophy. And in most cases, they were starkly beautiful.