Dialogue with an Art Historian — Part Five.

Dialogue with an Art Historian — Part Five.



The dialogue:

In spite of a long history of non-photo realism in modern art, many if not most persons are still hung up on realism in painting OR impressionism, as being “good art”. They fail to understand that Impressionists, Cubists and the many other “modern” styles of painting were explorations of the no-man’s land in between realism and abstraction. For many artists painting a photo realistic painting is a useless occupation, which is more concerned with technical accuracy than artistry. I have always been fascinated by this no-man’s land, and explore variations on both the abstract and realistic edges of the continuum. I have gotten some criticism for painting in a semi-realistic style — and I ignore much such unsubstantiated criticism because it has nothing to do with the art itself, but rather with the viewers’ inability to see beyond a photo or Instagram/Facebook doctored images of “perfection”. My goal is always to approach portraits both as recognisable renderings but also as subjective composites of how I see the subject at hand. Sometimes, like in the experience of Picasso and Kahlo etc., caricatures and near-cartoonish styles are the chosen expressions — because they can thus de-weaponise the personal vanity, and create an easier passage into the complex personality of the subject. At other times the semi-realistic features approach realism more intentionally. People need to get into their consciousness that what they think they and others see is not necessarily self-evident. 

Even realistic portrait painters “improve upon” their subjects. It is high time for art viewers to wake up, and give themselves and non-realists a break. Painting style is much more of a choice than many give artists credit for. It is not always that artists are not capable of painting in a certain way after years of technical practice, but that we see things differently and choose styles that help us in the intended expression.

Unfortunately, this perceived demand from viewers of art and art customers also encourages many artists to copy the styles of celebrated dead artists literally rather than to use them as a departure point for one’s own originality. Many renowned artists and composers have made works “in the style of …” but here they clearly contribute their own unique interpretations. Copying the styles of famous artists, composers and authors has long been an important part of the technical learning process, but originality and risk-taking must eventually prevail if one desires acclaim and recognition as an original artist.

Another question is the taboo against talking about, writing about or “explaining” one’s art. This is to be left to critics and art historians. I rebel against that personally. Many have asked me where my ideas come from, or what a painting is about. These are valid questions that help viewers and readers to understand the wealth of ideas with which artists grapple, and the “explanations/commentaries” by the artist can both inspire others and provide a better basis for criticism: has the author achieved his/her goals? That is truly a better basis for reflection and criticism than comparing living artists with famous dead artists.

How do you react to these questions as an art historian and as an artist?



See this article about Picasso’s portraiture:



See my own semi-realistic self-portraits, and portraits of others, here:




Here are some examples of my own works in the “no-man’s land” between realism and extreme abstraction:

«Secundo fluctus» (Second Wave), by Adam Donaldson Powell, 60 x 50 cm., oil on canvas, 2020. The theme of this self-portrait is the impossible dream that is never finally achieved — no matter how much success we or others may think we have achieved, the dissatisfaction is always there. That has been the plight of most artists throughout human history; and it is no less today — for artists, and for non-artists. The tremendous Saturn-influence enveloping us at this time insists upon the renewal of our dreams, our motives, our ways of seeing, acting, living … imposing a heavy reality check upon us all. It is not all negative from an overall perspective, but it takes a higher degree of ingenuity, creativity, and persistence in order to create the much-needed and long-overdue New Consciousness. This dark expressionist self-portrait entitled “Second Wave”, provides a subjective inside-looking-out acknowledgment of the present experience. The intention is to document the thick muddy gelé of fear + careful hopefulness that we are all enduring in this Winter of darkness. The observant viewer will note that the face is itself a mask, as is the masking Darkness.

Crumpled paper (Oil on canvas).


Tribute to Malevich (Oil on canvas).

“Masquerade: COVID-19”, oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm., 2020, is self-explanatory at first glance. However, here I have left certain features slightly unfinished: the naked eyes, the disintegrating painted frame etc.; this to suggest vulnerability and a sense of incompletion. COVID-19 presents the unanswerable questions of how effective we really are at masking fear of the unknown, and which “me” peers out from behind the superficial protective covering. This painting is a continuation of my self-portrait series, in which I explore different ways of seeing and presenting myself — with various styles and painting techniques.


Aged stone (Oil on styrofoam).


Spring snow (Oil on canvas).


Love Illusion, 65×90 cm., oil on canvas.


“Haiku”, 65 x 90 cm., oil on canvas, is a textured abstract work that explores the haiku moment of fallen cherry tree blossoms scattered by the wind:
cherry tree blossoms
scatter beyond all fences.
kissed by a mild breeze.


“Coffin Portrait / Lockdown — Summer fun”, oil on canvas, 55 x 46 cm., 2020, the second title is perhaps self-explanatory. But it doubles as a Coffin Portrait (see https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coffin_portrait). This painting is a continuation of my self-portrait series, in which I explore different ways of seeing and presenting myself — with various styles and painting techniques.



Soul evacuation, oil on canvas, 100x150x8 cm.


“Patch of grass”, oil on canvas, 50 x 40 cm.

“Ground Zero — the day after”, 55 x 46 cm., oil on canvas


Nightfall – with Winter giving way to Spring, 50×50 cm., 2017.


“Being = Nothingness”, 40×40 cm., oil on canvas, 2017.


Painting: Oil on Canvas. “The making of a Replicant: Human Pod Project — developing embryos”, oil on canvas, 65 x90 cm., 2019. This challenging work — both conceptually and technically — is a commentary on biotechnology and the future of human design and reproduction.


Time travel (oil on canvas, 40 x 40 cm.)


And some examples of my art photography:


Regarding the first of your three points that is focused on non-representational art and the apparent phenomenon of the general public’s reluctance still to accept it, I have to admit that I am not au courant with contemporary art trends or attitudes to them.  I actually imagine that the tastes of “the public” have in fact expanded in numerous directions in the last twenty years and that what they might be reluctant to accept is not non-representational art but conceptual art.

But first: “the public” I think we’re really talking about are the relatively well-off who can afford to buy art and/or the well-educated who have had some exposure to “fine art” and maybe its history.  I suspect that much of the rest of the public are indifferent to the trends in fine art as defined by the intellectuals who “deal” with its history and/or its commerce.  Given my own lower middle-class upbringing in a small town of 5,000 in a rural northwestern area of New Jersey three quarters of a century ago, my outlook is conditioned by that experience as much as by my Ivy League education.  

I sense that “realism” or naturalism versus non-representational art is not an issue these days, as I said above.  Younger nouveau riches who want to decorate their lofts or townhouses undoubtedly “appreciate” non-representational art for its decorative possibilities.  In a sense, it’s non-controversial:  your guests aren’t going to argue over the morality of a large canvas with splotches or stripes of color applied to it as opposed, say, to a painting by Balthus.  On the other hand, so-called conceptual art is not something I imagine many wealthy younger professionals wanting to buy or to place in their abodes.  Conceptual art may be created using “realistic” objects, indeed, objects taken from everyday life (pails, mops, bales of hay, gigantic stuffed animals, mechanical detritus, soiled rags, etc.) but that stand for or suggest ideas or concepts that are either not at all clear or, if understood, not something one would want to spend time talking about at a cocktail party (if one had the space in one’s home to arrange the items that constitute the artwork).

In terms of portraiture and people’s response to your own work, I can imagine that the choices made in creating a portrait are things that an owner of the work might well not mind having people discuss, especially if the portrait is of a known personality (including, e.g., the owner/patron).  That personal relationship to a work of art could generate all sorts of interesting discussion and be a discussion that was/is forever renewed.  Certainly in the context of portraiture, non-representational techniques could well be questioned by even sophisticated viewers depending on their acceptance of the artist’s stated or implicit goals and their own view of the subject’s persona (and what the ‘aim’ of a portrait should be).   This is quite different, it seems to me, from talking about a non-representational artistic “vision” of, say, a countryside or a bowl of apples.  Somehow, there’s less “invested” in the outcome than in a portrait.

Your point in your third paragraph about “copying” of another artist’s style and the fact that this has been done for eons is well-taken.   And it goes beyond just “style” but subject matter and composition and all sorts of other aspects of a painted work.  I recommend a wonderful book by Elizabeth Cropper about a 17th century dispute whether an Agostini Carracci altarpiece picturing the last communion of St. Jerome was copied by another Italian in Rome at the time,  Domenichino.   (She points out the subtle differences between the versions that would allegedly have been noted by an informed viewer at the time that would have been sufficient to cause the Domenichino version to be as valued as the Carracci.)  And there’s an old story about Cocteau, who welcomed a guest into his apartment one day and the guest espied a work hanging above his mantle and exclaimed, “That’s a Picasso, isn’t it?”, whereupon Cocteau replied, “Yes, it is. I did it myself.”   In other words, copying was and presumably still is ok in Western (and Chinese?) art, as long as the newer work reflects some ingenious modification or addition to the earlier one.  But, again, this assumes an informed and wise viewing public.  (I’d point out also how Picasso deliberately took earlier artists’ works, such as those of Velasquez, and re-created them in etchings that were clearly not meant to be pure copies.  And Rembrandt liked the works of Hercules Seghers so much he copied it and even reworked an etching plate created by Seghers.  And way back in the early 1500s, Andrea del Sarto was asked to copy a painting by Raphael of Pope Leo X and two relatives so that it could be given via a third party to the king of France as “the real thing”.  It’s hard to tell the difference between them!)

In your fourth paragraph, you raise the issue of whether visual artists (and perhaps others, such as poets?) should be “explaining” their works, or at least their goals, in text that accompanies the work in question.  And, if so, what’s the purpose of that?  As you well know, many decades ago there was a movement in literary criticism to divorce all discussion of a writer’s biography from the work itself.  The work should stand on its own without further explanation.  The discussion then swung the other way around:  at least in literary criticism or history the author’s biases and background ought to be revealed so that the reader of his text could take that into account in considering how the author’s views might have been affected by matters beyond the pure intellectual consideration the author brought to the project.

This question actually brings us back to my first point in the first paragraph above: conceptual art was not welcomed with open arms by the buying public precisely because it took a few pages of text, often, to explain what in the world the artist was intending to do!  The assumption was, if the point was that obscure, then the artist was a kind of elitist who was not worth one’s time or money.  Maybe the same approach might be taken in regard to modern “free verse” poetry:  if the allusions and references are so obscure that an ordinary reader can not figure out what is being said (and why), why bother with it?

But I think the kind of “explanation” you refer to – and sometimes write – is a little different.  The text is as if a docent/guide was looking over our shoulder adding interesting pieces of supplemental information to the viewer: information that is not necessarily discernible otherwise but which helps explain the choices the artist made and the original goal of the work.  Absent such explanation, the work can still be “appreciated”, but the artist’s textual supplementation can enrich the experience.  And there’s nothing wrong with that (unless one takes the position previously mentioned that those who believe themselves “purists” invoke: the work stands on its own or dies.)







( photos: street art in Paris (Belleville) )



First of all, l would like to thank you for your thoughts regarding these timeless questions which have never been — and perhaps can never be — resolved with objective satisfaction. Judgment concerning artistic expression is by definition ever-changing — both for artists themselves, art collectors, art educators, art historians, and the general public. What and how artists create (conceptually, thematically, and technically) and how that art is perceived by others is a complicated issue and is influenced by many personal and societal/historical factors, ranging from personal appeal to politics. For me, the greatest value of art history and art criticism is perhaps that of allowing individual works and artistic styles to be “categorised” in a longer perspective, divided up into “periods”. This can be both positive, instructive and useful, as well as “leading”. Ideas are often quite competitive and, like with all else, the creative interpretations of art historians and art critics is also in part driven by the desire to identify with or argue against accepted trends of perception and analysis. It is not always easy to see previous periods of artistic expression and output solely in the context of the actual periods in which works were made, and including the socio-political and historical events that the artist conformed to or rebelled against. We are all deeply ensconced in our our personal experiences of the present, and our interpretations and likes/dislikes are intrinsically connected with the present day … as well as our own exposure to different artistic expressions, art forms, education about art and art history, and what we have heard or read about art and artists. This applies to all: artists, “art lovers and enthusiasts”, those with university education, those without, persons who were exposed to art from an early age in their home and school environments, art collectors … and those who rely mostly upon their own intuition, i.e. that which for whatever undefinable reasons seem to appeal to the viewer personally. 

While I support the “right” of all persons to have their own personal likes and dislikes, as an artist, writer and former musician I am always interested in hearing what appeals to (or does not appeal to) individuals from all niches of society — including their reactions to my own art. I have the impression that many (if not most) are unable to objectively express why they like or do not like individual artworks or genres of Art. This is perhaps not to be unexpected. Art is often meant to be inspirational or confrontational — appealing to or provoking human experience and psychology. However, I would presume to say that many (if not most) artists desire more solid (i.e. “qualified”) feedback than we often receive. I am always open to (and seek criticism of my own Art and writing), and I was a literary critic for many years. I listen to what is being said, review its relevance to my own work within the larger and more specific intentions and ideas that I have had … and then I make decisions based upon whether or not I feel that my intentions and ideas were successfully communicated to the general public. Sometimes I make changes in my approach to individual works, and sometimes I do not. I am always thankful for constructive input. That being said, I also know that much of the public’s likes and dislikes cannot be influenced by myself or my Art alone … and trying to “win over” supporters in that way is never a goal of mine. My art is ever-changing and evolving, as it should be. And every work of art that I produce is part of an interconnected continuum and process; i.e. an extension of the previous work(s). This is perhaps basic for most artists, and can be observed in the progression of technique, and also in recurrent themes, ideas and style considerations. I have the understanding that much of what we like or dislike is “learned”/acquired. If an artist, composer or author is understood to be “good”, then the disposition is sometimes to accept that their entire output as seen in published books, recordings or presented in art museums must be equally “good”; and if we question individual works then we truly fail to understand them. This is not only restricted to intellectually-complicated works such as much contemporary conceptual Art, or challenging works such as Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness”, or even works by many contemporary classical composers. Sometimes we do lack the intellectual experience, education and foundations to understand complicated works of Art; and sometimes the Art presented is “the Emperor’s new clothes” — not necessarily because the artist desires to trick the viewer, but because we artists sometimes stretch our ideas to our own intellectual and technical limits, without regard for accommodating the public along with us on our exploration/journey. That is a “right” of the artist, and of the museum/art gallery that presents and attempts to sell the works in question. However, we must also allow for the possibility that not all art or artists that have achieved celebrity through sales of works for millions of dollars/euros or that have been selected for purchase by art museum is necessarily among the “best” — now, or perceived as the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time). Art museums and their boards and curators have their own agendas, which include among other things to educate, inspire, provoke, challenge and stretch the perceptions of the public. I will go so far as to say the same regarding Art Historians and Art Critics. Consider the source, the agenda … and follow the money!

It is not unknown to me that art collectors are often interested in buying art as an investment. Unfortunately, that is a risky investment if you do not have the economy or Time to wait for the value of purchased art to mature. I have had those discussions with my own customers, and seen it with collectors of much more renowned artists — including art collectors who have purchased works from “rising stars”, but who have not really liked the work and have accordingly stowed it away while patiently waiting for the chance to resell it. I personally encourage my own customers to buy what appeals to them personally, and even to change the art in their personal environments as their own needs and perceptions change. I do the same in my own personal environment, which has well over 100 artworks by myself and others. 

While my own more complicated artworks are often best understood by other professional artists, I have also encountered a few artists that are as opinionated and influenced by norms as some in the general public. This is perhaps to be expected, as we artists are both subject to the same influences as others in society … and because we can often be both “accepting” of other styles, genres and techniques AND intent upon the directions we have chosen personally. Some persons are simply not moved by non-representational Art. Some persons just do not like conceptual Art, or geometric Art, or art that is neither fully realistic or abstract. It is not within their current frame of reference. And the same can be said about persons who like certain works of art without being able to justify it objectively. Must they be able to do so? Perhaps not … but as an artist I am always curious. Many years ago, after a concert I have given in New York City, I was approached by a person in the audience who congratulated and praised my performance. I was silly enough to ask: “What appealed to you most, and why?” (I sincerely wanted feedback.) The answer I received was: “Oh, I just love Brahms …”. I was a bit disappointed. But I was primarily disappointed in myself for not giving this person the space to just enjoy the effect of my music. On another occasion I observed a person in the audience at a performance I attended at Carnegie Hall following the recital with the musical score in hand. I was aghast, thinking that that would be devastating for me as a performer. But who knows what the intention of the score-reader was? Perhaps he would give the performer objective and constructive criticism after said performance?!!

As regards acceptance of non-representational Art today, I would agree that there is today much more tolerance than previously. But tolerance is not the same as acceptance or understanding, or even the Will to understand. This is also true of semi-realism. I have seen the numbers of artists working in semi-realism increase over the past decade. And why not? We have run the gamut, otherwise: from New Primitive Art, to Geometric Art in several modern and post-modern periods, re-discovery of realistic techniques as employed by the Old Masters, photo-realism, many other forms of Abstract and Conceptual Art. So why not explore the psychological “no-man’s land” in-between? All the rest has been evaluated, judged and categorised “to Death”.

I would also like to comment on the rather common criticism that “good Art” is art that one oneself cannot do. I have heard this many times — mostly by non-artists, but also by one or two elderly / Old School artists. Art is about ideas, as well as technique. It does not matter if another artist could have done a work that equals the technical aspects employed in an artwork. What matters is that that particular artist found and executed the idea in her/his own way. The same regards persons who dislike an artist because of what they have read or heard about him/her as a personality — either through written criticism, gossip or conspiracy theories. I react to some ideas presented by artists in their artworks, but if I do not personally know an artist then who am I to judge their art based on gossip or conspiracy-theory-based hatred? Again, often artists intentionally provoke in order to inspire questioning and thought. 

In summary, I would repeat that these issues and questions are complicated and perhaps unresolvable. Individual artworks are perhaps sometimes less important than the effects of the ideas presented — both in the present, and over time. 

As regards “copying”, making excellent copies of the work of others, as well as making and selling printed copies of one’s own work for quick sales to persons who cannot afford original paintings, is not my thing. I do understand that there is a market for such, and that the technical challenges for copyists can be exhilarating. I have written many times previously on this blog that I fear that the market for lesser-known artists who are trying to sell original artwork can be constrained by these activities. But, as stated above, there are many art buyers who want renowned artworks on their walls — even though they are not originals, and have little value. These are not my intended viewing or buying public. 

As an artist who is interested in Art History, I always approach art museum exhibitions by looking at the artworks in questions and only then do I read the usually sparse information provided by the museum. I am most interested in the year the work was made (this in order to gain historical and socio-political context and perspective), and then I sometimes read the title of the work … but not always. More interesting to me are the art curator notes about the artist and his place in art history — and these I usually go back and read after I have studied the works in question. I — like many viewers — often wonder what the artist’s own ideas, goals and inspirations were. With the www we can today read these “notes” written by artists themselves online, and get both perspective and insights that we would otherwise not have access to. My own “notes” tend to be a combination of the philosophical and technical ideas explored and employed. They are — in a sense — artworks (art essays) in themselves. Would I post these on the walls of an art gallery exhibition? Probably not. But it is great to be able to post them online, rather than trying to answer questions regarding my inspiration and techniques in one or two quick and hurried sentences at a gallery opening. But then again, describing  one’s own art can be fatal:


Okay, so let me pose the question that many of us want to ask:

How does your work as an Art Historian and your study of Art History affect your own art?



The question of how my own art work has been affected by my study of art history is one I have not previously considered.  Although my formal study of art history began at Hunter College at the City University of New York in 2007, in one sense I have been studying it all my life, just as I have been creating art nearly all my life.  As I mentioned earlier, I grew up in a small, rural town in northwestern New Jersey in the 1940s and 50s.  Although New York City was only 60 miles away, we lived in a totally different world.  In Sussex County there were more cattle than people in those years!  Our cultural outlook was limited.  Nonetheless, in elementary school there was always a class in art-making.  I recall that in fourth grade my mother marched me to school one day to demand of my art teacher an explanation why her brilliant little Michelangelo had received only a “C” grade in art class!  The explanation of the somewhat flustered young (male) teacher: I hadn’t grasped properly how to draw things in perspective.  The human figures in my landscapes were much too out-of-proportion for their placement in the scene: Some too large in the background, some too small in the foreground.  I don’t recall my mother’s reaction to this explanation, or my own.  I think that, deep-down, living with an authoritarian father, I always detested having to follow anyone else’s rules, including, apparently, the rules of perspective.  (Yet I did in most aspects of my life hew all too closely to the rules; but that’s another story.)

From an early age (6? 7?) I started creating my own comic books.  Comic books and cowboy movies were my escape into different realities.  My mother saved one of my comic books and gave it to me years later. I even learned how to create 3-D drawings for my comics, with near-parallel red and blue outlines of the figures and settings that, once you put on your 3-D “glasses”, gave the wonderful illusion that you were looking at scenes with real physical depth.  (So much for the need to utilize “perspective”!)   And I recall one time at a Cub Scout function that a “real” artist had been invited to, my scrawl on a large pad of paper was transformed by him into a pleasing female figure that was judged best of all the scouts’ scrawl-derived works and I won some sort of prize!   I also did paintings while in elementary and high school, none of which survive.

And, somehow, I must also, on my own, have read about art and its history in books.  I was what was then called a “book worm”.  Other classmates were athletes, I was a scholar/artist.  I edited the school newspaper and was in charge of our high school class’s yearbook, with cover design and layout created by me. I say I must have read about art and its history on my own because in college I never took one art history or art studio course.  Yet when I was on a Fulbright scholarship to France post-graduation in 1964-65, I had the leisure to create more paintings of my own and created a few that were in the style of famous artists:  Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse.

In the decades following, during my career as an international lawyer, I was able to visit many art museums throughout the world that I might have otherwise overlooked:  the large Sao Paulo museum with its excellent if ill-maintained collection, the one in Dublin, others in Stuttgart and Hamburg, as well as more recognized collections in London and Paris.  And on vacation trips, I kept returning to Italy and viewed the ubiquitous art that makes that country so precious: that in small and large churches and cathedrals and old municipal buildingsAssisi, Siena, Todi, Perugia,Arezzo, Florence, Milan, Venice, Rome.  Those visits and my (self) education encompassed, of course, the buildings themselves and their statuary and decoration.


My own art production peaked in the late 1970s and 1980s, including my introduction to print-making.  This medium became a kind of obsession, as it combined my love of drawing with production of “real” works of art! (In that time, drawing had not yet come “into its own” as a category of fine art divorced from its function as preparatory to painting or other large works in other media.)


But I must admit that throughout all this stimulation of the right side of my brain, my left was not always in gear:  I did not really consider what kinds of choices the artists had made, what types of considerations beyond creating “beauty” and fulfilling commissions led them to create the forms they had made or the materials they had used.  But creating art of my own, I intuitively grasped that not all media were appropriate for one’s expressive needs:  drawing and its extension, print-making, had limitations of size; sculpture required expensive materials and hard, physical labor and long training; frescoes meant you had to work quickly with a sure hand; silver point allowed for no errors; watercolor : ditto.  

The study of art history helped to “organize” my thoughts about the art that I had been viewing for half a century, and its “development”.  It engaged that left side of my brain and got it working when I thereafter viewed new or previously-viewed art works.  

But I resisted, and still do, engaging the left side of my brain too much when creating my own art.  I am drawn to (pun) recreating on a two dimensional surface what I see before me – transforming my visual reality into something preserved on a two-dimensional sheet or canvas (alas, no more 3-D efforts…yet).  The work produced then becoming a record of my “feelings” when creating it and of the point in my life when I did so.  

Thus, the small still life I painted while in Lyon on my Fulbright year recalls that blessed period of introduction to my “second home”: France.  The print of faceless men in a claustrophobic bedroom space: the late 1970s in crime-ridden New York and the part of gay life relegated to the piers and trucks and warehouses on Manhattan’s West Side.  My drawn self portraits from one of my sketchbooks: the “down time” at home that I had in 1979 due to hepatitis.  A faceless portrait of my boyfriend, now husband, Jay created in a store front pottery workshop in our Greenwich Village neighborhood in 2005: the excitement (and fear) of entering into a new intense relationship with someone I did not yet know.

Jay’s later training and career as a photographer has led me to a new appreciation of that medium, and helped further train my own “eye” (“training” that is even more acute than what viewing works of artists such as the Impressionists or the Northern Renaissance painters had accomplished), i.e., how to “catch” the moment, the beauty surrounding me in Nature wherever and whenever I may be outside our apartment in the City, or along the marshland near our Westhampton home, or looking up at the sky out of any window in any building anywhere in the world.  Likewise, my drawing sessions with watercolorist-friend Nathalie at the Quogue Wildlife Preserve on the East End have helped “focus” my view, as has a friendly comparison by each of us of the other’s accomplishments.  

So, in a sense, I’ve been “studying” art all my life, with a more organized approach ensuing when I studied for my MA in art history at Hunter.  Perhaps I’ve divorced too much the study of art and art history from my efforts at creating art – indeed, I’m not sure that “creating art” is a good term to describe what I was aiming at — but certainly each has “informed” the other (to use a current, fashionable term that grates on me for some reason).   And that’s all to the good!

NB. Ricardo (Rick) has also recently translated Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s « The Little Prince » from original French to English.

Available at Amazon.com.au


(Photos of Ricardo and Adam at the Henie Onstad Art Center in Norway, 2019.)


NB. Examples of my criticism of books and art can be found elsewhere on this blog. I always try to give the author/artist an understanding regarding what my criticism is based upon. Here follows an example of this approach and critical philosophy:

I am often asked what I look for in poetry books that I review, or consider reviewing. There are many poetic forms being used today, with many hybridisations. There exists both a sense that there are “no rules” anymore and, at the same time, there are some unspoken literary guidelines that determine the probability for successful literary communication – beyond the subjective, and questions of personal taste. I believe that it is important for me as a reviewer to restate what I look for from time to time. As I have written elsewhere, I look for many qualities including: evenness in quality, diversity in content and form, artistic intent, planning, execution and polish (the degree of polish being both intentional and commensurate with the desired expression), and an overall concept of the book as a complete work of art – beyond an arbitrary “stew” of individual poems. In addition, I pay attention to the author’s sense of originality, political and social awareness, mastery of storytelling, and visual, musical and philosophical expressions indicative of the author’s experiential personal history. I further look for: balance of intellectual rationalism and emotional presence, a solid command of the full palette of language(s) used, descriptive colour, clarity, intentional usage of abstractions, entertainment and theatrical/performance value, humour and occasional irony, and an overall sense of when to use poetic economy versus poetic rapture. And finally I am concerned that the author has an understanding of how to arouse within the reader a sense of personal identification, emotion and engagement – enabling the reader’s ‘inner artist’ to enter into a creative cognitive dialogue with the author, and hopefully even to inspire the reader to embark upon his/her own creative process.

I believe that art is both an intentional and an intuitive process, with many pitfalls: eg. overwriting, non-attention to levels of language used ($5 words can sometimes be more appropriate than $5000 words), stylistic and punctuation liberties that sometimes work and sometimes not, mimicking famous (and usually deceased) writers without sufficiently developing one’s own signature style, and getting all too caught up in – or ignoring – traditions of literature without having thought through why one has consciously chosen this or that style, or a divergence … just to name a few. At the same time, I believe that artists must always keep experimenting in order to grow and to develop further. That means taking risks … and sometimes even falling flat on one’s face. That is okay. We eventually learn from both our own … and others’ mistakes.

So writing is not a static process … and neither is literary criticism. While much criticism for first-time authors can be similar, it must be kept in mind that 1) there is no definitive “correct way” of writing, 2) criticism is personal and subjective to a large degree, and 3) there has never been a “perfect” book (and never will). I do not personally believe that writing a perfect book is an all important goal. Constant experimentation with technique, style, form and language is the real key to self-development and literary development. A not so well received book can be preceded by one or more very well received ones – who is to judge what is “good or not”? And the perhaps “not-as-good” book could teach author and reader much more than the “good” ones.

– Adam Donaldson Powell


See my photo documentation of street art in Oslo! 


Dialogue with an Art Historian: Part Four — On Patrons, the Church and Artists in the Renaissance Era

“Flying”, oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm., 2021. Adam, the artist, inserts himself into a contemporary religious painting.






The Visual Artist in Western Society

As for visual artists and their status: I believe that, contrary to some historians, they were never “anonymous” — we just don’t have historical records, so their names are unknown to us. But artists as creative beings (and I’m including of course architects) necessarily had a reputation once their works were seen in their own time. And, in one way or another, they always “advertised” their existence and skill(s): an interesting essay by Meyer Shapiro that analyses the role of the artist in tenth and eleventh-century France suggests that the better ones were well recognized and in demand and their roles as visual interpreters of Church tradition and dogma were part of their skill, even if they weren’t themselves members of religious orders. (See M. Shapiro, “On the Aesthetic Attitude in Romanesque Art”, reprinted (pp. 1-27) in Romanesque Art (George Braziller, NY, 1977).) And early in the Italian Renaissance, we find Giotto signing a painting of St. Francis from about 1300 (now in the Louvre).

So, the apparent uniqueness of the modern obsession with “fame” is perhaps overstated.  

As courts developed in the major cities in Europe during the Middle Ages and bourgeois classes grew thanks to increased commerce, trade, and worldwide exploration, the demand for and ability to pay for sophisticated, often opulent works of art likewise increased. Naturally, artists sought commissions from the newly-wealthy and powerful, since artists were trying to make a living. Partly impelled by a desire to earn more money they sought more prestige, as well. Some were able to align themselves with Humanist scholars whose writings became as valued as the Church’s theologians. All classes became interested in Europe’s debt to their Roman and Greek ancestors. Scholars kept finding and reproducing texts from ancient times that had been long thought lost and ancient artworks kept being dug up (the most famous find, in Rome in 1506: the Laocoon, a sculpture that is a Roman copy, mentioned in an ancient text by Pliny the Elder, of a Greek original and, as the text indicated, signed!)

Scholars fleeing the Ottomans in the Near East in the later fifteenth century brought their knowledge of Greek with them, as well as ancient texts.

This interest in the Roman and Greek past naturally was picked up by visual artists and, so, beginning especially in the early 1400s, aspects of Roman architecture began to be found in the frescoes and panel paintings and in the designs of new buildings themselves.  Rulers as disparate as the Gonzaga in Mantua and Rudolph II (HRE, 1576-1612) delighted in being identified in their artists’ works for it associated them with the glories of Rome in one way or another.  

Of course, the concept that Rome and its heritage was somehow “lost” and then refound during the early Renaissance is a bit of a legend without much basis. Monasteries and other centers of culture in the Middle Ages preserved some of the Roman heritage and there’s certainly evidence throughout that writers and artists still reflected on that history.  To cite just one example, in the Morgan Library the Stavelot Triptych, created around 1155 AD, on its side panels contains miniature silver columns with Corinthian capitals and bases evoking Rome and the Constantinian era, consistent with the period of the legends depicted in enamel roundels on the panels.

The clients’ idea of having themselves pictured via portraits in painted works — both secular and religious — seemed to develop slowly in the early 15th century, but then caught on. So we find in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s frescoes in SM Novella in Florence on the life of the Virgin (ca. 1490) various Florentine “notables” in the crowds attending the various episodes. The work was commissioned by a banker of the Medici’s, Giovanni Tornabuoni (contract signed 1485). In the ducal palace in Mantua we find a room frescoed by Mantegna in 1464-75 with the Gonzaga ruling clan prominently displayed on several of the four walls. The semi-private functions of the room, the Camera degli Sposi, helped to create an air of exclusiveness that was meant to impress viewers with the wealth and cultural prestige of Gonzaga without an overt or gaudy display. 

It’s common in art history to teach that the first profile bust in marble since the end of the Roman Empire was done by Mino da Fiesole in 1453. Appropriately enough for our purposes and point of view, it was a portrait bust of the son of the patriarch of the Medici’s in the 15th century, Piero de’ Medici, who de facto ruled Florence 1464-69. The sculpture is now in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello. This would have presumably been for display in the patron’s home and not publicly. The great ‘boom’ in portrait art in Florence in the mid to late 15th century was featured in a recent Met Museum exhibition.

Even in Northern Renaissance art, we see contemporary donors or clerics being portrayed in historical or Biblical works. Thus, there are several masterpieces showing Chancellor Rolin of the Duchy of Burgundy, including one by Jan van Eyck (ca. 1435) where he is shown kneeling in front of the Virgin and child!  Hans Memling painted an altarpiece of the Crucifixion (ca. 1470) where the patron/donor, a cleric named Jan Crabbe, is seen kneeling at the base of the cross, while on the side panels (now at the Morgan Library & Museum in NYC) are his mother with her patron saint and his brother with his. There are countless other examples of donors being pictured within scenes that nominally are set in Biblical times but feature contemporary architecture and cityscapes.

Presumably, the Church in Rome had no problem with this. It was certainly a way to encourage the spending of large sums by patrons or wealthy clerics in order to have colorful works of art created which could adorn their churches (sometimes inside chapels ‘owned’ or sponsored by the patrons). For the Strozzi family, rivals but sometimes allies of the Medicis, in their chapel in SM Novella, Filippino Lippi painted a fresco (1502) depicting a legend of a saint’s deeds and pictured in it a very elegant Moorish man, wearing an extremely tall turban, which seems to be a portrait of Filippo Strozzi’s Moorish slave.

And, as you pointed out, artists took the opportunity to represent themselves as well as their patrons in some of these scenes. So, it’s thought that the man on the right peering out at the viewer in Botticelli’s “Adoration of the Magi” (1475, Uffizi) is Botticelli himself!  Likewise, we probably see Pontormo among the men holding the dead Christ in his “Deposition” in Santa Felicita (1528) in Florence.

Presumably, this reflects that by the late 15th century the most well-known artists had gained a status well above that of a mere member of a workmen’s guild (painters and sculptors often were lumped with other trades in large guilds). When they did have their own guilds, artists often used it as a way to keep out competition from artists emigrating from other cities or regions.

Certainly, your thought that being seen via portraiture in a painting of a Biblical scene might somehow suggest to the patrons that they were that much closer to Heaven is a correct one. I always found it somewhat amusing that this same thought led many aristocrats and members of other privileged classes to attempt to be buried in floor tombs within the church and as close to the altar as possible!  

The Maggiore chapel in Santa Croce, Florence, has frescos by Taddeo Gaddi’s son, Agnolo Gaddi, painted in the mid-1300s.  Agnolo was considered the artistic heir of Giotto.  The fresco is notable for details and curiosities that have nothing to do with the legend’s iconography.  In it, you can spot portraits of Taddeo, Agnolo, and Giotto.

I’m sure that artists were not oblivious to the concept that one way to gain business was to suggest to a wealthy patron that he/she commission works for a church in which the patron would also be pictured. But my sense is that the wealthy and powerful did not deal directly with artists and that agents or bureaucrats or scholars affiliated with the circle or court of the patron would have both recommended the artist and perhaps negotiated with him over the details of the work. Italy has a particularly rich archive of contracts for artistic works (the Northern Renaissance countries don’t) and in some of the contracts, there is a fairly precise description of what the picture should look like and what colors and materials were to be used (to impress one’s neighbors you’d have the painter use a blue made from lapis lazuli — extremely expensive — with gilding throughout; in the Middle Ages the gilded area often suggested Heaven).  

We should remember that painted images were not the highest form of ‘conspicuous consumption’ in the Middle Ages and Renaissance/Baroque: you showed you were especially wealthy by owning woven wool tapestries and sculptures (including table-sized ‘miniature’ bronzes by the likes of a sculptor dubbed “Antico”). Thus, the Medicis were sufficiently wealthy to commission Donatello to create his sculpture “David” that was probably intended for a garden. And the Medici pope Leo X commissioned Raphael to create “cartoons” for 10 tapestries (based on the book of Acts in the Christian Bible) that were sent to Brussels for weaving around 1516. All European rulers of stature until the 18th century owned often large numbers of very expensive tapestries.

Granted, these were the wealthiest and most powerful of secular and religious figures who had vast amounts of assets to draw from to pay their artists. By the seventeenth century, in more bourgeois societies such as those in the Dutch Republic cities, status seemed to depend more frequently on your ownership of paintings, including the new genres of landscapes and still lifes.  

Nonetheless, the Roman Church and its new orders such as the Jesuits continued to commission large projects, including the frescoing of ceilings and domes of newly-built churches, such as the dome of the Jesu Church in Rome. 

In terms of when the concept developed that “Art is an Elite Business”, it depends on your viewpoint.  As noted above, the artist was not necessarily the one creating the impression that his works would lend status to an owner. It partly required a knowledgeable patron with intelligent advisors to commission the type of work that would reflect grandly on the patron. Michelangelo gained his fame from the Pieta, the David, and the Sistine Chapel ceiling, all commissioned by “the Church”, though the ceiling reflected on the apparent good taste and sagacity of Pope Julius II, who also commissioned his own tomb from Michelangelo that Michelangelo was working on fitfully for decades after the Pope’s death. By the time the Pope commissioned the ceiling, Michelangelo was already “a rock star” and many of the era’s notables were nearly begging Michelangelo to make even a drawing for them.  

So, by this point in the sixteenth century, some artists had received the kind of acclaim we see today and could almost literally “name their price”.  What Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) spawned in his work on the lives of the painters and sculptors (1550; 1568) – a view of art as a kind of competition judged by people who did not have to be either artists or patrons – created a new profession: art critic, someone who was a kind of intermediary between the patron and the artist.  Was this the beginning of history’s tendency to “forget” certain artists who were not deemed of the highest rank, even though their works might well be worthy of attention and provide joy to those who beheld them?  (Vasari, of course, was himself an artist and architect, but that was not a requirement for art critics in succeeding centuries.)

But to answer your main query: Yes, clearly wealthy families or individuals hoped to gain both public prestige and a step up on the ladder to Heaven by commissioning frescoes and altarpieces that were, indeed, very visible in a church setting and, thus, would be viewed by other citizens who undoubtedly would marvel at the amounts spent by the patrons (often chapel-owners) to have had such magnificent works created. And some of the works of course involved sculptural settings and statuary/busts for their own tombs in a church if they were so fortunate as to be permitted such a permanent “residence”.  

The Roman (Catholic) Church clearly favored this approach and during the Counter-Reformation and Baroque periods, their churches became almost over-burdened with decoration. As you’ve noted, certain break-away sects among those that came to be called “Protestant” were more ascetic in their approach and, hence, we have the wonderful paintings of white-washed, brilliantly-lighted (via clear windows, not colorful stained glass) interiors of Dutch churches by numerous seventeenth-century Dutch painters. (See The Wake of Iconoclasm: Painting the Church in the Dutch Republic, by Angela Vanhaelen, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press 2012. 222 pp, 56 illus. ISBN 978-0-271-05061-4).     

Certain Protestant sects, such as the Lutherans themselves, came to accept aspects of the decorative scheme and theology of the Roman Church and so permitted painted pictures, even of saints (the cult of saints had been roundly criticized in the initial phases of the Reformation).

But one senses that the patrons and artists were less likely to try to be “show-offs” publicly in the context of a Lutheran or Reformed church.

Again, this was a period when the opulence of art went back into private, but now bourgeois, residences (parallel to the palaces of the Medici, the Strozzi, Sforza, and other Italian wealthy families).

Collecting:  An Aside

As one of your points suggested, we shouldn’t overlook the idea that “consumers” of art drove the market, too. Commissioning or buying “fine art” was not always an aesthetic decision per se, but, rather, made in order to have something in one’s home that was deemed by others to be desirable.  Around the time of the Renaissance, the idea of forming collections of things as a goal in itself – pictures, tapestries, gems, items related to amateur scientific study, medallions, small bronzes, etc. – seemed to gain momentum. Vasari, an artist, and architect, was also an avid collector of other artists’ works, especially drawings. Reasonably well to do people who could not afford oil paintings much less tapestries, could perhaps afford drawings or prints. In any event, all these “objects” that were collected presumably meant to the collector that he had a certain prestige as a member of the cognoscenti by virtue of ownership of multiple numbers of fine visual works by more talented individuals who were acknowledged as such by the arbiters of taste at the particular moment in history when the collecting was carried out.

Given the secularization of society in general in the 18th through 20th centuries, religious art tended to be accorded less value than before and artists sought fame and fortune through portraiture and decorative floral and other still-life paintings and “genre” painting. (Mythological and historical paintings were still acquired most often by institutions.)  So the Church had less influence on the picture- and sculpture-making. Thus, artists threw their lot in with the nouveau riche and bourgeoisie.

One might have expected that extreme times would have brought changes in art – the subject matter, even the materials. After a wave of neo-classicism in 18th century Europe (France, especially), the French Revolution might have been expected to overturn all aesthetic “norms”. Instead, it seems to me that artists were wary about trying anything too new that might be deemed “aristocratic” and literally be a risk to their lives (at least in France). Even in French “satellite” countries, like parts of Italy, we see more “classicism”, such as Canova’s pure-white marble sculptures.  Elsewhere, like England and Germany, there develops a Romanticism that seems to be a “cry” back to the calm of pre-Revolutionary times rather than a direct response to the Revolution and its ideals and chaos. There were notable exceptions, of course, such as the work of the brilliant English poet, painter, printmaker, publisher William Blake.  


Thanks, Ricardo. That was awesome!

This intriguing article is a good one for those interested in more information on this and related topics:


Do read this excellent piece on the history of Renaissance art:


Here is more about the evolving status of Italian Renaissance artists:

The escapades of Isabella d’Este — a Renaissance art collector:


For those interested in more information about the Northern Renaissance, and about the Protestant / Lutheran Reformation and its effect upon Church and Religious Art, check out these excellent links:




“Masquerade: COVID-19”, oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm., 2020, is self-explanatory at first glance. However, here I have left certain features slightly unfinished: the naked eyes, the disintegrating painted frame, etc.; this to suggest vulnerability and a sense of incompletion. COVID-19 presents the unanswerable questions of how effective we really are at masking fear of the unknown, and which “me” peers out from behind the superficial protective covering. This painting is a continuation of my self-portrait series, in which I explore different ways of seeing and presenting myself — with various styles and painting techniques.
Found in an old chest — cartoon from 1987, but still relevant today.
«Il tessuto dell’uomo», oil on canvas, 55 x 46 cm., This self-portrait by Adam Donaldson Powell explores Florentine textiles and the noblemen who adorned themselves with them. On a more conceptual scale, the painting alludes to «the fabric» of humanity itself.

NB. Photographs and paintings by Adam Donaldson Powell. All references and links are credited to the best of my ability. The artist who made the cartoon is unknown to me (unfortunately), but the magazine name is above the artwork.


Dialogue with an Art Historian: Part Three — The Continuation.

Dialogue with an Art Historian: Part Three — The Continuation. 


I have a further follow-up to your previous questions regarding comparing artists from different eras. 

I think there’s a basic problem in comparing artists, either in their own era or with respect to artists in other eras. Certainly, it’s interesting to try to detect “influences” (e.g., Japanese prints on some of Van Goghs later paintings). But ultimately, as you well know, what’s key in a work (to my mind) is the ‘sensibility’ (for lack of a better word) of the artist — to his materials and to himself (his soul, if you will). It’s that kind of ‘expression’ that subtly appeals to many of us, even if unconsciously.  That sensibility may involve her/his reactions to events of their time, their era — political, social, cultural, scientific, etc. But, even if a detailed analysis by a critic or art historian can seem to “tie” aspects of the artist’s work to public events or other artists past or present or things happening in the artist’s life, an exercise that seems peculiarly satisfying to other critics, art historians, and even the public, the final reckoning is the viewer’s/receptor’s “reaction” to the work. When you stand in front of the work, it’s just you and it. And each viewer brings her or his own ‘baggage’ — life experience, viewpoints, mood, preferences.  

That’s why, as I stated earlier in our exchange, I have a healthy suspicion of the whole idea of “judgment” in relation to art-viewing and discussion. Yes, I think one can speak intelligently and even non-judgmentally about one artist’s use of a medium vs. another’s. In an online discussion of “The Renaissance of Etching” (a Met exhibition and catalog last year), recently held in connection with the International Print Dealers Association ‘fair’ here in New York, it was interesting to hear several of the 3 member panel note that Durer’s few etchings reflected someone not comfortable with the medium but, rather, who must have preferred engraving (hence, he made only a few etchings). This is a probably historical fact, and interesting in itself, but should not necessarily ‘cloud’ our view of his etchings. What is our personal reaction to these etched images? Can we look at them and ‘appreciate’ them without drawing on our knowledge of how spectacular his engravings are? (Probably not….but we can still appreciate his effort at employing a new technique … and maybe enjoy the images themselves without any comparison with his other works … or with other artists’ etchings.)

As I stated earlier: it seems to me this idea of judging artists and eras began with Vasari here in the West and has not always been helpful in our attempt to understand what really happened in various eras of Western history in the visual arts. (If that’s what we want to understand.) We’ll always have a view skewed by what earlier critics and historians have determined was good or bad and by the ‘canon’ that they have implicitly created. This may leave we who are readers and observers without a real understanding of what earlier societies ‘valued’ in the visual arts and who they thought were good and not so good. A totally comprehensive overview of any era’s visual output is probably not practical, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop trying to get a ‘broader’ view of all that humanity has accomplished — to the extent we have the time away from our own work!  


Artists and writers are a cross-section of society … with diverse political affiliations, social and moral values, and financial connections. While I affirm that all artists and writers have a right to their own views, I do wonder whether critics, art historians, museums etc. might have an obligation to present the artist in a context which gives insight into the connections between who they are are personalities and the art that they produce. But what are the boundaries of accountability — for art and literary historians, of critics and teachers, of publishers … and of artists? This includes the many instances of artists, writers and musicians who supported their sponsors in order to gain renommé, political and financial gain, and artistic opportunity. Is there a difference between that and museum benefactors who are known for politics and investments that are no longer politically correct? 

I have pointed out Gertrude Stein’s (and other famous authors’) fascist leanings previously. What do you think of the survival of her art collection purely due to her support of Petain? Is it excusable? How do we separate our valuations of famous writers and artists from their “madness” and opportunism as persons and personalities? Does genius supersede all judgment? 

I have personally reacted to known artists and writers who have expressed themselves to the media and in their art and literature in ways that I considered to be derogatory to women, to persons with physical handicaps, etc.; and I have also defended artists’ and writers’ right to self-expression, but only as far as I feel that s/he makes an attempt to present the case and give context to their xenophobia and/or other discriminatory perspectives … rather than merely make bombastic presentations in order to shock and provoke. This is a sensitive issue and has perhaps always been so. 


All good questions. In the contemporary scene: what should we make of art museums and others being renamed because the benefactor was tied to Big Pharma ‘pushing’ of opioids, especially oxycontin? Or of the Princeton School of Public Affairs being renamed from the Woodrow Wilson School to a more innocuous generic name after Wilson’s terrible racism was (re)exposed? And what can we say about artists? Should we disavow Caravaggio’s works and importance because he was a murderer? (Many artists were at that time, including Cellini … self-admitting in his autobiography). I think the works have to stand on their own … including Wagner’s. But with sharp-eyed observers pointing out aspects (if any) that may deliberately expose their (now) abhorrent views.


Yes, we are all responsible: in our creations, our judgments, our criticisms, our thoughts, our actions, and our non-actions. Existence is an exercise in creation. My most valued compliments regarding my art and literature have been when viewers/readers have told me that my work and ideas have sparked creative thoughts, artworks, and writing in their own lives. I mean for my own work to be an existential and philosophical “dialogue” with the Viewer/Reader … a dialogue that can continue in his/her mind, and thus further, in many forms and perspectives throughout the planet. In that way, we are all inescapably artists/writers/philosophers etc. And we are all responsible. In the words of Jean-Paul Sartre: “L’homme est condamné à être libre”, a concept which resounds in his “L’Etre et le Nèant” and in his “L’existentialisme est un humanisme”. In his novel “Nausea”, Sartre played upon René Descartes’ “Cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”) with his own discourse: “I am. I am, I exist, I think, therefore I am; I am because I think, why do I think? I don’t want to think anymore, I am because I think that I don’t want to be, I think that I . . . because . . . ugh!” ― Jean-Paul Sartre, “Nausea”.