The bus pulls up to the side of the road. There is a driveway there with no signage or any indications that this is anything but someone’s home. Steve, Paolo, Fred and I stay back a watch as the people at the front of the bus gather their things and wander out. I follow trepidatiously.
It ‘s long driveway in the middle of the woods. There is a giant gecko creature climbing some rocks…a ten foot tall giant gecko. Beyond it there is another driveway which separates itself off. It is blocked with a Do Not Trespass sign hanging on a rope between two posts on either side. ( Obviously some evil wizards castle…)Around us is lush foliage, greens, greys, browns, mixed together. They remind me of the kind of foliage a buxom nymph might sit upon. I ponder this as the area opens up around us. There is a field and a pond to the right side, birds swoop around and crickets sing. Large trees overhang the road, the road curves, my traveling companions chatter amongst themselves as two buildings are revealed. The museum and a smaller companion building (an entrance to subterranean catacombs, perhaps?) stand before us. As we stand awestruck, a beam of opalescent light cascades down from the heavens and alights on the red Spanish tile. Suddenly, we are at an ancient castle awaiting some onslaught by monstrous lizard creatures. There is only I and my powerful broadaxe to separate my companions and certain doom….
Anyway, we head on up to the front door. Others have gotten there first and are pouring through. There are a few gentlemen on the trip who must be more art collectors or fans than artists who immediately drift off to locate favorite pieces.
Steve, Paolo and I, slowly approach the first wall of paintings directly to the left of the door. There are pieces here I remember from collections of works, and I immediately move to stick my nose up to the surface of a painting, like any good artist would when approaching a piece, looking to understand the brushstrokes, read them as if they were a book which holds all the secrets of painterly success. Most of the pieces are small. Around 18 by 24 painted on masonite in oils. His drawing style is clearly and admittedly influenced by the fact that he started out working in comics and has a fantastic grasp of composition and in placing light and dark shapes, and painting directly off that structure. Most of the pieces feel like they would have been very complete well constructed ink drawings before they were painted. Exactly as I had suspected all these years.
As a young guy (high school and into college) I wanted to be like Bernie Wrightson….solid black and white compositions, beautiful balances between light and dark. He could make a werewolf slaughtering a bunch of frightened hunters into a blood soaked ballet of shape and pattern and black and white, figure and ground. It was after Bernie that I discovered Frazetta. In one of Bernie’s collections( A Look Back) there is an image from Wrightsons’ high school years with a Conan like character standing amongst some trees. The legend scrawled across the top….” Frazetta Forever.” Frazetta I wondered? Who was this guy? I started looking around and found Frazetta everywhere. MIdnightstation my then studio-mate and BFF showed me a book of poorly reproduced prints of his work which I devoured. Wrightson’s earlier work was clearly driven by this stuff, Later he would break with his Frazetta influence absolutely and do his Frankenstein which is phenomenal and a seminal work. I could see influences here, Howard Pyle, NC Wyeth and the whole Brandywine school in the compositions and in the loose brushstrokes. The detail on these prints was bad so I had no idea what the originals had for clarity.
Looking at his work in person, you can see how he was interested in speed and economy of detail . This is not to say that he was slacking, but that he recognized the importance of focusing detail into places of maximum interest in a composition rather than painting everything with the same level of detail. Composition is a game of controlling the eye of the viewer, in this case using detail to draw the eye to the area chosen by the artist of most interest this is mostly employed in illustrative composition where there is a quick and speedy point to be made, but on my trip to the Louvre, I saw that David employed the same idea on his 16 foot tall canvases. All of the detail of say “Liberty leading the People” is at the top of the compositional triangle where lady liberty holds the flag. The mounds of people following here and or being trampled by the onslaught of her companions are loosely detailed, more drawing with washes of color than fully painted areas. They get less detailed in relationship to their distance from the focal point of the picture. This is Frazetta’s best game. Even on paintings like the Death Dealer, the paint is loose and thin in the background and even a lot of the horse is more drawing than paint. But there on the helmet and shield and on the chain mail on the main figure is all the detail in the world. Little marks and crenellations in the metal, nicks from former battles, rivets holding the plates of armor. The horses head is insane , but still looser than other areas.
His color is also crazy, he used color in every aspect of his paint. So many people now, looking for some kind of realism or too scared to try it, keep their color toned back, dulled down or tonal avoiding the whole issue. But Frazetta puts out of the tube purple into green compositions, bright reds in skin areas. Very bold stuff.
WE wandered around the museum. Everyone was inspecting analyzing trying to understand the hows and whys of each piece. It seems like Frazetta still has his best or most memorable stuff, all the Death Dealers where there and many other pieces I would have figured would have been sold to some gallery.
There were some giant pieces of African warriors on the savannah fighting lions that were among his first pieces (1949) on the walls. It was clear that he was learning on these but his learning was fast. There were the three giants on the hill, the scary guys riding the polar bear sled fun stuff.
Ellie, Franks’ wife and inspiration, came out to tell us a little about Frank and his work. He apparently had recently had a stroke which made it difficult for him to paint with his correct hand. But now he was learning to use his other hand and was getting pretty good at it.
Ellie said that Franks first love and interest was Baseball, which made all of us artists for lifers groan. It’s funny how many of us work and work to create strong pieces and you turn around and there’s a guy who is a phenomenon unto himself and who just thinks of it as a side gig, or a fall back career . She went to the art store section of the museum and started selling prints and books.
We wandered around for a while until Frank himself appeared. His walk was a bit stilted, but he had the swagger I associate with someone born in Brooklyn. He walked in like he owned the place( he did) but everyone gathered around to ask questions. He has a brash bold way about him. There is no trepidation, no uncertainty about his presence. You could tell he was as bold as his paintings.
He signed a few books and such, I had a chance to talk with him. I always feel weird asking people for autographs, so I didn’t. I asked him who his biggest influences were when he started painting. He boldly exclaimed “ No one I make it out of my head…all of it!” asked a more pointed version of my question. And Frazetta looked at me and said, “Michelangelo, all those guys, I looked at everything…”
We head back on the bus discussing what we’d just seen. We sat around at the society hours later drinking beers and talking art and business. Rusty wanted advice on how to trick...I mean ask a girl into modeling for a painting. Fred, the"I only paint the naked girls honestly" master gave sound advice.
Fred and I later went to a gallery opening for some students graduating from NY Art Institute's graduate program. The work was solidly painted, mostly attempting realism, but none of it was very dynamic or powerful...just very accurate. I pondered the question of whether the new focus on Atelier drwing won't kill the soul of expressive paint. I hope it doesn't. Even when painting Geckos fighting giants, a good painting is a good painting. I had a great day...I left Fred at a chinese fish sandwich stand off Canal St. and boogied down to the subway. another bus ride and I would be at my Mom's house for a late Mother's day, then home with my family to Syracuse...to obsess over my next painting....
PS- I want giant Geckos on our front yard too....I wonder if Mila could work them into her garden design...maybe crawling up our Silver Maple tree....hmmmm