In the early 1990s, advertising mogul and London gallery owner Charles Saatchi began to sponsor members of a loosely-knit group of recently-graduated art school brats who would become known at the YBAs – Young British Artists. In 1997, Sensation, a group YBA show of work from the Saatchi collection was mounted at the Royal Academy of Art, London, and two years later, after a stop in Berlin, a version of the show was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Noted art expert Rudy “Lapdog” Guiliani, then mayor of New York City, made deriding comments filled with righteous indignation regarding the show, specifically Chris Ofili’s painting The Holy Virgin Mary, and attempted to evict the museum from its space and withdraw its funding. In addition to the expected art world ink, the story was picked up by the general press, few of whose members seemed to have actually seen even a photo of the piece in question, as it was often described as being “smeared” or “splattered” with elephant dung, which was not the case. It’s always fun to see professional wackjobs frothing at the mouth about the latest artwork that’s going to bring about the downfall of Western civilization; however, political baiting aside, most of the work in Sensation was not really up my snicket.

I thought some of the YBAs – e.g. the aforementioned Ofili, whose work I considered fairly innocuous; Jake & Dinos Chapman – were not particularly interesting at all, and found others – e.g. Tracey Emin, Rachel Whiteread – to be intriguing conceptually, but not so much in the formal sense.1 The sole member of the group whose work I found really engaging was Jenny Saville.2

Saville was only twenty-three years old and already an accomplished painter when she first showed her photographically-based outsize canvases of outsize female nudes. Her work existed in the face of all the “male gaze”3 figurative paintings of art history, as well as the trendy heroin chic fashion photography of the day. Saville’s feminist approach often leads critics to give the work what I feel is an overly-conceptual reading. First and foremost, she is a painter, one whose lush depictions of human flesh indicate she is just as obsessed with the subject as was Francis Bacon or Rembrandt, both painters whose work I’m sure she has studied extensively.

One of my favorites of her early work, Propped, depicts a large woman4 sitting atop a stool. The seven-foot-tall canvas, the low angle perspective, and the dramatically foreshortened legs accentuate her size as she looks down on the viewer. Feminist writer Luce Irigaray’s words “If we continue to speak in this sameness – speak as men have spoken for centuries, we will fail each other…”5 are scored into the picture plane in mirror image writing, as if they are for the figure in the piece, not the audience. It is an extraordinarily sophisticated work for such a young artist to have executed, and was what convinced Saatchi to offer to become Saville’s patron and commission her to spend two years working on pieces to be shown at his gallery.

Since the ’90s, Saville has continued to evolve as a painter. Her color palette is now more varied and vivid; her paint handling more vigorous – the brushwork, like Bacon’s or Frank Auerbach’s, often seems to bear no relation to the form it represents, although unlike those artists, she maintains a credible human anatomical structure. She also employs completely abstract de Kooningesque passages and often draws on canvas with charcoal and pastel, giving the paintings a more active and layered surface. She continues to focus on the human form, and has expanded her subject matter to include pregnant women, babies, children, and transgender men and women.

For decades, probably since the advent of photography, there has been talk of “the death of painting.” It hasn’t happened yet, and it’s not going to happen on Jenny Saville’s watch.


1 To be fair, especially to Whiteread, I have seen work by most of the YBAs only in reproduction.

2 Those of you who were hip kids in the 1990s will recognize Saville’s work from the cover of the Manic Street Preachers album The Holy Bible; Epic Records (1994).

3 In feminist theory, the “male gaze” refers to the depiction of women as sexual objects for the benefit of a straight male audience. I suppose some of my work could be seen through this lens, although I think the artistic concerns have always outweighed any objectification, actual or perceived.

4 The figure has Saville’s face, although I do not know if she considers Propped to be a self-portrait.

5 “When Our Lips Speak Together” from Signs; University of Chicago Press (1980).

My first favorite artist was Rembrandt van Rijn. Apparently, even as a young child, I didn’t fool around; I just went with the best. I remember being awestruck by The Night Watch when I was about five years old – at that time I probably didn’t know the word epic, but I did know that this painting had to be bigger and better than anything else in the world.

I became familiar with The Night Watch when an aunt gave me the book The World of Rembrandt.1 I don’t remember if I already knew who he was when I received the book, but afterward I thought Rembrandt must be the greatest painter to have ever lived, and The Night Watch was obviously his masterpiece. There are three full-page details of The Night Watch in the book; I would just sit and stare at them – I was amazed that someone could actually make such a thing. It’s a monumental painting, with sixteen near-life-size figures of the militiamen who commissioned the piece, plus fifteen “extras” whom Rembrandt added to the composition.2 One of these “extras” is probably my favorite figure in the painting – a young girl, a dead chicken tied to her waist, scurrying through the scene. I have no idea why she’s there, and I certainly don’t know why she has the fowl, but I do know she was not a random addition. The way she seems to glow makes her as much a focal point as the two main figures in the middle foreground.

At that time I definitely didn’t know the word chiaroscuro, but I did love the deep shade and brilliant light in The Night Watch. While the rest of the company is in varying degrees of shadow, the captain and his lieutenant – quite the dandy in his feathered hat, yellow brocade jacket, and sash – almost seem to be under a spotlight. In a piece filled with texture, the lieutenant’s sartorial elegance, along with the way he is lit, provides the brightest and showiest details. The manner in which Rembrandt depicted light and shadow does not always necessarily make strict literal sense, but the power of what he invented is undeniable.

Despite the book’s black and white reproduction, The Slaughtered Ox became another favorite. As a child I was fascinated by skeletons,3 and Rembrandt’s Ox is perhaps the most visceral depiction of flesh and bone I’ve ever seen in a painting. The sheer mass of the animal, hanging suspended by its hind legs from a large wooden frame, is palpable – I could feel the weight of the carcass, as well as the dank atmosphere of the room. Whether or not it was intentional, Rembrandt’s treatment of the subject is much like that of a crucifixion – a startlingly modern take for an artist working in the seventeenth century. This piece was also almost certainly the first in what for me would become a long line of beloved paintings with untraditional subject matter.4

At that young age, drawing was already all I wanted to do,5 and as a result of the book, I knew I also wanted to paint, and I wanted to paint like Rembrandt. I still kind of do, although when I eventually did start painting I never attempted to emulate Rembrandt’s work.6

Over the years, many artists have become important to me, but Rembrandt has remained my favorite pre-nineteenth century painter. Although I continue to find The Night Watch an enormous achievement in art in general and group portraiture in particular, I would no longer cite it as my favorite Rembrandt painting. Since my late teens or early twenties, I’ve had a preference for his more intimate work, especially the self-portraits, of which he did many. One can follow him from the time he was a young man through the last year of his life, when he died at sixty-three. Rembrandt was not a classicist; he painted real people, not idealized figures, and in his self-portraits he did not abandon this tenet. Although his late religious paintings are often considered to be his strongest work, I believe his self-portraits to be his main contribution to art history. Neither his eye nor his hand wavered; Rembrandt documented his aging process in a more detailed and perceptive manner than perhaps any other artist ever.

After all this time, The World of Rembrandt still occupies a space on my bookshelf. I never got peanut butter and jelly on it or dropped it in the bathtub. I don’t look at it as much as I once did, but when I do, Rembrandt still seems like the greatest painter to have ever lived, and the book seems like one of the best gifts ever. Thanks, Joyce.


1 Robert Wallace; Time-Life Books (1968). She also gave me two other volumes from the Time-Life Library of Art series – the Van Gogh and the Titian – neither of which I liked very much. In time, I came to appreciate Van Gogh; Titian still leaves me a little cold.

2 Three figures, including two members of the company, were lost when in 1715 the painting was cut down to its present size. Yes, cut down to its present size. This fact does not appear in The World of Rembrandt; if it had, I would have been aghast.

 3 I also loved x-rays and other types of scientific imagery, including the photos of the moon taken by the Apollo astronauts, topographical maps, those clear plastic overlays in anatomy books, et al.

4 When I was a teenager discovering the work of Francis Bacon, including Painting 1946 with its butcher shop imagery, I’m sure it fell within my sensibility and was accessible to me at least in part because of my knowledge of the Rembrandt piece. Interestingly, I recall Bacon being quoted as saying he didn’t particularly care for The Slaughtered Ox – he felt it looked as if were made of wax, not flesh and bone.

 My older brother remembers when he would come home from a hard day at kindergarten, our bedroom floor would often be covered with drawings I’d made while he was gone. I was three years old.

6 I obviously had more good sense than did Van Gogh.

Back in February 2020, I wrote about Wayne Thiebaud and the show 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings, which was due to open at the Crocker Art Museum in October of that year. Because of the pandemic, the museum was closed for part of the scheduled run, so the exhibition probably didn’t turn out to be the 100th birthday celebration Thiebaud was hoping for and deserved. During the time one could view the show, I was still sheltering-in-place, and did not venture there. Thiebaud passed away in late 2021, and now, after stops in Toledo, OH; Memphis, TN; San Antonio, TX; and Chadds Ford, PA, the show is back in Sacramento, expanded and under the new moniker Wayne Thiebaud: A Celebration, 1920-2021.

Over the years, I’ve been to several surveys of Thiebaud’s work, but on a recent warm, blustery Saturday, I paid a visit to the Crocker to see what I missed out on nearly two years ago. I’d seen much of the work in previous shows or in the Crocker’s permanent collection, although a good portion of the pieces were new to me. Unfortunately, because of the wind, the surrounding agricultural fields, the fact that Sacramento is in a valley, and my overly-vigilant, histamine-releasing immune system, I was sneezing so much I had a hard time focusing on the work. I spent about an hour and a half in the galleries before I gave up, went home with red eyes and a runny nose, and crashed on the sofa with a box of tissue.

My second excursion to the show was much less allergen-infused and much more enjoyable. Thiebaud’s work is playful and fun; a less angst-ridden notable oeuvre would be difficult to cite.1 His technique of applying the paint to physically mimic the subject, whether it be cake frosting, ice cream, mustard, or potato salad, is signature Thiebaud, consummate and humorous. Of his paintings, I have a preference for the still lifes, not only the food, but the clothes, the makeup, the tools – objects which are designed to be adornments to or extensions of the human form but are presented in unused states.

It’s simple enough to understand why in the early 1960s, given Thiebaud’s subject matter, he was seen as a Pop artist. However, although his serial pies, cakes, and other foods were certainly related to that movement, time has proven him to be a much more traditional painter than that connection would indicate. As early as the mid-’60s, he tried to get away from the Pop label by painting the figure, which he approached in much the same manner as the still lifes – brightly lit, straightforward depictions in austere settings. His figurative work is most compelling when it most resembles the still lifes, when the figures are static, doing absolutely nothing, engaging with no one.2

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, Thiebaud added landscapes, both rural and urban, to his oeuvre. These paintings were often constructed from multiple viewpoints and contain all the movement missing from his figurative work. People rarely appear, and when they do, they are miniscule. As in Asian landscape painting, with which many of the cityscapes share an exaggeration of verticality, the figures shown illustrate the disparity in size and importance between humans and their environment.

As much as I enjoy the paintings, I have had fairly consistent access to them, courtesy of the Crocker, for most of my life. With the exception of the relatively recent “Clown” series, of which I don’t recall ever previously seeing an example, they no longer hold much surprise for me. Consequently, the highlights of the show were the ink and the watercolor thumbnails – simple sketchbook exercises which show Thiebaud’s ability to quickly capture the essence of an object or the attitude of a figure.

I’ve said before that Thiebaud was almost certainly the first contemporary artist of whom I was aware. I told him that once, and he laughed, as though he didn’t think of himself as particularly “contemporary.” I didn’t know him, although over the years I did have several interactions with him in non-art-related circumstances, and he always seemed like a genuinely nice, low-key person. Godspeed, Wayne Thiebaud.


1 My taste, although quite catholic, veers toward the Expressionist. “Playful and fun” generally does not describe what I look for in a painting.

2 A Thiebaud canvas which I saw for the first time on my second trip to see A Celebration was Supine Woman (1963), which was included in a separate exhibition, Twinka Thiebaud and the Art of the Pose. It could be my favorite Thiebaud figure painting I’ve ever seen.

At the de Young Museum in San Francisco, I recently saw the Alice Neel retrospective People Come First, which is up through July 10, 2022 and is the first large survey of her work to ever be exhibited on the West Coast. Prior to this show I don’t believe I’d ever seen any of her actual paintings, so I was eagerly anticipating my visit, which would be my first out-of-town trip in well over two years, since shortly before the world closed down. I’ve been a fan of Neel’s for many years, and it seemed her work, with its strongly humanist approach, would be perfectly appropriate for my reentry into the realm of museum-going, which I have missed terribly.

From the mid/late 1980s to the mid-’90s, I was regularly borrowing Patricia Hill’s monograph Alice Neel1 from the Sacramento Public Library. Neel’s painting of Andy Warhol, which appears in the book, is what initially prompted me to do so. I don’t remember where or when I first encountered the piece, but it was almost certainly my introduction to her work. It is a masterful portrait, capturing Warhol as he was rarely seen – sensitive and vulnerable. I actually find it surprising that Warhol sat for her in this way, without the mask of the “Andy Warhol” persona. Unfortunately, the painting is not in the present show; I would have loved to have seen it, although while at the museum, with so much strong work to see, I really didn’t think about what wasn’t there.

The first painting in the exhibition is French Girl, one of Neel’s earliest known extant works,2 done when she was in her early twenties. It’s a stunningly attractive piece, but Alice Neel’s artistic ambitions went far beyond the creation of attractive paintings. Her expressionist bent; her employment of caricature; and her drive to produce work which would reveal something of the inner life of the sitter – to paint what she considered “truth” – often resulted in images which do not fall into traditional notions of beauty. Neel did, however, imbue her sitters with the dignity she believed they all possessed. Her wide range of subjects included family, friends, lovers, leftist political figures, pregnant nude women,3 art world luminaries, feminist leaders, kids from her Spanish Harlem neighborhood, members of the LGBT community, and a Fuller Brush man who was also a Holocaust survivor. Her intent was not only to paint individuals, but also to document the times; her oeuvre, in a sense, is a portrait of the era in which she worked.

In one of the de Young galleries, near the piece Ginny in a Blue Shirt, a monitor shows a short silent film of Neel working on that painting. Although Neel was a straightforward easel painter, I found the film to be a fascinating addendum to the exhibition. She started by outlining the figure and other parts of the image – what she called “dividing up the canvas” – in thinned ultramarine blue oil paint. It’s a startlingly direct method of working, and as a result the sitters display a remarkable presence in the paintings. Neel developed compositions very quickly and if some aspect needed to be adjusted, she simply repainted it.4 She would then fill in color, modeling some areas while keeping others flat. This representational/abstract juxtaposition is heightened by her practice of leaving areas of the picture plane unpainted, as in Ginny in a Blue Shirt and many other pieces done in the latter part of her career. Viewing the work in today’s context, it still looks contemporary and, in the present socio-political climate, her obvious affection for her subjects makes it feel not only current, but revolutionary.

Alice Neel passed away in October of 1984 at the age of eighty-four.


All artwork © The Estate of Alice Neel.


1 Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (1983). In those barbaric pre-internet-shopping days, I was unable to find a copy for purchase until it was reprinted in 1995.

2 In 1934, much of Neel’s early work – about sixty paintings and two hundred drawings and watercolors – was slashed and burned along with her clothing by Kenneth Doolittle, a controlling boyfriend/opium addict. She believed he would have killed her had she not fled their apartment.

3 Neel’s interest in pregnant women, mothers, and children was probably informed by the loss in 1927 of her first baby to diphtheria and the fact that in 1930, her husband abandoned her and took their second child with him to Cuba.

4 She would often leave the initial, “incorrect” lines evident in the finished work, visually flattening those areas.

As a youngster not yet in kindergarten, my heroes were Rembrandt, Charles Schulz, Neil Armstrong, and Paul McCartney. Rembrandt died about three hundred years before I was born, but I have walked the world for most of my life along with the other three. Schulz passed away in 2000 and Armstrong took that giant leap in 2012, leaving Sir James Paul McCartney the last man standing.

My life roughly coincides with McCartney’s time in the spotlight. About six months after The Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, I was born in Sacramento, California. On the same day, across the country in New York City, The Beatles and Bob Dylan met for the first time.1 Maybe I sensed something exciting was going on in the outside world and decided it was time to make my entrance.

My mother enjoys telling about how one day when I was three or four, she was in the kitchen and heard me in the next room singing to myself. When she stopped what she was doing and listened, she heard the words “It’s a dirty story of a dirty man/And his clinging wife doesn’t understand….” She was surprised and amused, but simply went back to the task of washing the dishes. “Paperback Writer” is still one of my favorite songs. A few years later, just four months after its release, I received McCartney’s self-titled solo debut for my sixth birthday.2 I remember being at my grandparents’ house when it was given to me by, I believe, an aunt or my grandmother. Since the mid-1970s, I’ve been buying his records myself as they have come out, and each of those albums has the ability to take me back to where I was in my life upon its release.

Paul McCartney’s Got Back tour at Oakland Arena; May 6, 2022.

A few weeks ago, I attended the first of two McCartney shows at Oakland Arena on his Got Back US Tour. It was my sixth McCartney concert; the first was in Berkeley at Memorial Stadium in 1990, which was something I’d waited my whole life to experience. The seconds before he walked onto the stage were really quite overwhelming. That feeling hasn’t subsided over the thirty-two intervening years and five subsequent shows – I’ve never been disappointed. Of course I have favorite songs, ones I would prefer to hear over others; some of them were hits (e.g. “Get Back,” “Jet,” “Junior’s Farm”), some were not (e.g. “The Back Seat of My Car,” “Old Siam, Sir,” “House of Wax”). Some I’ve seen him perform, others I haven’t. However, I’m not one to quibble over setlists, I’m just happy to see him and his band do their thing. McCartney’s catalogue is so vast3 it would be impossible for him to do all the hits, let alone everyone’s favorite album cuts, but in his nearly three-hour sets, he covers a lot of ground, and always plays at least a few songs I haven’t seen him do on previous tours.

McCartney has given countless interviews in which he’s spoken about the inspirations for various songs. His method of abstracting, masking, and combining his experiences and concepts, molding them into songs, has informed my own process. When I first started painting in the mid-’80s, The Beatles’ “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever” single was a touchstone for taking specific personal memories and altering them into evocative images to which audience members could ascribe their own meanings. Although many of the ideas for my work stem from events in my life, I don’t have, nor have I ever had, an interest in making narrative autobiographical paintings. I’m very thoughtful about my work, and strive for a multiplicity of ideas in each piece, but prefer the finished pieces be open-ended. I am uncomfortable discussing what the work is “about” and am hesitant about revealing the specifics of its origins. Fortunately for me, McCartney has been open about the development of his work, as many of the songs I appreciate the most are ones for which I know the initial ideas and can see how they were transformed into something much different. He continues to be a hero.

Paul McCartney will turn eighty years old in a few weeks, on the 18th of June. I’ll raise a glass and drink to him, drink to his health.


1 Dylan introduced The Beatles to marijuana that day. Although the Fabs wouldn’t try hallucinogens for a couple more years, they were already familiar with amphetamines, in the form of the diet pills they took to keep their energy up while playing long nights in the clubs of Hamburg. Speed was never McCartney’s cuppa tea. Pot, however….

2 I still have that record. Up until relatively recently, it was my only vinyl copy. Several years ago, I purchased a Taiwanese version, issued in a paper sleeve instead of a cardboard jacket. Linda McCartney’s compelling “spilt bowl of cherries” cover photo is badly reproduced in black and white, sadly depriving the viewer of the striking color of the fruit. I bought it because it was cheap and it’s peculiar.

3 Thirteen Beatles studio albums, twenty-six solo and Wings studio albums, plus all the live albums, classical recordings, and odd (some of them really odd) releases.

Rosanne Cash collection, including signed copy of The River & the Thread LP.

Early in 1980, when I was fifteen years old, I was reading an issue of Rolling Stone magazine and came across a “tandem” record review, one of the subjects of which was Rosanne Cash’s first Columbia album, Right or Wrong.1 Although she had made some appearances on her father Johnny’s albums, I was not familiar with her at all. The piece, while not quite a rave, was very positive, calling her a “firebrand,” and it succeeded in piquing my interest.2 The first time I actually heard her was about a year later, when the title track to her next album, Seven Year Ache, became a hit3 and made me a fan.

Cash’s singing affected me, then as now, in all those cliché ways: the hair on the back of the neck standing up, the goosebumps, the breath taken away. She has stated that she’s never thought of herself as a singer in the same way that, say, Emmylou Harris is a singer, but the sultry, emotive quality of her voice makes her one of my favorite vocalists ever.

In the mid-1980s, Cash was riding high on the success of her number one album Rhythm and Romance and her Grammy win for the single “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me,”4 which she wrote with her then-husband Rodney Crowell. Her exquisite vocals notwithstanding, it is Cash’s songwriting which definitively places her in my group of musical icons. However, while finishing work on King’s Record Shop,5 for which she wrote only three songs, she had a growing lack of in faith in herself. This feeling manifested itself in a dream in which she was at a party sitting on a sofa with Linda Ronstadt, who was deep in conversation with an elderly man called Art, who sat between them. When Cash attempted to join in, he turned to her in disdain and spat out, “We don’t respect dilettantes” before returning his attention to Ronstadt.

Cash was badly shaken by the dream, and, feeling her success was hollow, vowed to change her approach to songwriting, her work ethic, her life.

In 1990, on Interiors, her follow-up to King’s Record Shop, as per her vow, the subject matter of the songs was broader, the emotional content more complex, and it was her first album for which she wrote or co-wrote all the songs. Upon hearing it, I wondered why she hadn’t been writing the bulk of her material all along. It’s a spare, largely acoustic record about disappointment in oneself and others, about disillusionment in personal relationships, about the disparity between image and reality. It was not a hit. It also soured her relationship with Columbia’s Nashville division, but it was a gauntlet thrown down, marking a turning point in the musical path on which she has not made an artistic misstep in her seven subsequent albums.

Although Cash was born in Memphis and lived in Nashville from her mid-twenties to her mid-thirties, she doesn’t consider herself a Southerner; she grew up in California and has lived in New York City for over thirty years. Cash and her husband/collaborator John Leventhal started making regular road trips through the South in 2011, when Arkansas State University began raising money to restore the childhood home of her father. Those visits inspired the songs that would become the 2014 album The River & the Thread, a travelogue through the geographic, musical, spiritual, and emotional aspects of the American South. Cash presents, via narratives from the lives of other people, real and fictional, a cinematic picture of not only the region, but of her own family history. “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” the opening track, sets the stage for the rest of the album with a tour through Alabama, Tennessee, and Arkansas in which the Mississippi River becomes a metaphoric thoroughfare to the past, a connection to the people whose stories she tells.

I found The River & the Thread to be shockingly good, even for an artist whose work I’d admired for over thirty years. In April 2014 I saw Cash at the Miner Auditorium in San Francisco; the first half of the show was made up of the eleven songs from this album. I’ve seen her perform many times, but seeing Cash sing these songs, this album in its entirety while it was still so startling and new, made for a truly transcendent evening. The record had been out just three months, but I had already come to think of it as a profound piece of work, one so evocative and beautiful I knew I would be able to draw inspiration from it for years to come.

Cash’s latest single, “Crawl Into the Promised Land,” was released over forty years into her recording career, just prior to the 2020 US Presidential election. It is an indictment of those who wield power indiscriminately and without consequence, a call to action to the disenfranchised and those who share their outrage, an ode to those who aspire to make the world a better place.

The night is long, but no one sleeps
The grifters make us pay
Torches burn and mothers weep
Deliver us from judgment day

And don't it feel like home
Don't it feel like we belong
You gotta lift your head and raise your hand
And crawl into the promised land6

Rosanne Cash: singer, songwriter, firebrand.


1 The other record was Two Sides to Every Woman by Carlene Carter, whose work I also greatly admire. Coincidentally, I believe Johnny Cash’s Silver was also reviewed in the same issue.

2 Admittedly, the fetching photo on the album cover was partially responsible for my reaction. Ditto for Two Sides to Every Woman.

3 In 1981, the “Seven Year Ache” single peaked at number 22 on the Billboard Top 40 chart and became Cash’s first number one on the Billboard Country chart.

4 Best Country Vocal Performance, Female (1985).

5 The 1987 album which is still her most commercially successful, spawning four number one hits and reaching number 6 on the Billboard Country Album chart.

6 Written by Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal. Published by Chelcait Music (SESAC) and Lev-A-Tunes (ASCAP).

Richard Polsky: I Bought Andy Warhol. Bloomsbury trade paperback (2005). Design: Whitney Cookman.
Richard Polsky: I Sold Andy Warhol (Too Soon). Other Press trade paperback (2011). Design: Carin Goldberg.

Back in 2005, I read a book called I Bought Andy Warhol,1 a memoir by art dealer Richard Polsky, who, with his wife Lia, owned a San Francisco gallery called Acme Art. Early in 1987, they mounted a show of Warhol paintings, and on February 22, it was hung but had not yet opened. On that day, they were in Sacramento to buy a small Self-Portrait from 1967 to round out the show. When they got back home to SF with the piece, there were over a dozen messages on their answering machine saying Warhol had died.

Soon after the show closed, Polsky set aside $100,000 to purchase a Warhol not to resell, but for his personal collection. I Bought Andy Warhol is about his search for that painting. It’s a highly entertaining read, very chatty and funny, with a lot of anecdotes about the strange and often ridiculous world of art. At the end of the book, he, now divorced, buys a 12” square green “Fright Wig,” from the 1986 series of self-portraits that I consider to be among Warhol’s most powerful work. Polsky really seems to love the piece, which took him twelve years to acquire. I was happy for him – he bought a great painting and only used half the money he had earmarked to spend.

In 2011, I found out Polsky had a newer book titled I Sold Andy Warhol (Too Soon).2 I was naturally disappointed that, after his talk about the “Fright Wig” being his “ultimate Warhol,” he decided to sell it. Nevertheless, I was intrigued and read the book. Apparently Rachael, his new wife,3 liked to spend a lot of money, and asked, “What would you rather look at, your painting or me?” He sold the painting to placate her. I’m sure she was not without certain charms, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying he made the wrong choice. The Christie’s auction at which Polsky sold the piece takes place at the beginning of the book; by page 29, he and Rachael are divorced.

Most of what follows is about how prices for blue-chip art escalated at an unprecedented rate in the late 1980s. It is entertaining, but while I Bought… is about art, I Sold… is all about money. It’s no coincidence that while the first book has the Warhol Self-Portrait on the cover, the second cover features the etching of George Washington from the dollar bill. Greed, and maybe fear, made him sell the painting. He says he immediately experienced seller’s remorse and that he had violated the cardinal rule of art dealing: never get emotionally attached to the inventory. He seems to have forgotten the piece wasn’t “inventory,” it was part of his collection, “part of [his] soul.” He sold it.


1 The title is a pun on I Shot Andy Warhol, a 1996 film which I had the distinct displeasure of seeing at a sneak preview with what seemed like an audience/mob of 800 militant lesbians rooting for wackjob Valerie Solanis, who they thought was making some sort of feminist statement by shooting Warhol and art critic Mario Amaya. Being in that theater was truly one of the most unsettling experiences of my life – I have no recollection whatsoever of the movie.

2 It was originally published in 2009.

3 I Bought Andy Warhol is dedicated to her.

Francis Bacon entered my life when I was about ten or twelve years old, via Charles Wentinck’s The Art Treasures of Europe.1 The book includes a full-page reproduction of Two Figures (1953), which I found simultaneously captivating and unsettling. The painting depicts two male nudes in the act of coupling; at the time, I’m not even sure I realized both were men, but a few years later I would learn that the bottom figure is a self-portrait. By the time I graduated from high school I had gained, courtesy of the Sacramento Public Library system, a working knowledge of Bacon’s oeuvre. I would also soon read David Sylvester’s engrossing book of interviews with him – it is a volume which continues to be a fascinating and revealing document of the creative process.2

In 1990, a large general survey of Bacon’s work came to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Although he had been an artistic icon of mine for many years by then, I had only seen a few actual paintings and was thus very much looking forward to the exhibition. Unfortunately, because of reasons not really appropriate to go into here, my plans fell through.3 Shortly afterward, I came into possession of the exhibition catalogue and found that Study after Velasquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953), one of my favorite paintings ever, had been in the show. It alone would have been worth the trip, and it is to my eternal regret that I did not make it to LA during the exhibition’s run.

In the summer of 1999, the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco hosted Francis Bacon: A Retrospective, and I was finally able to see a large show of his work. The aforementioned 1953 Innocent X was not part of this exhibition,4 but that was ultimately not a concern – my museum-going companion for this excursion sidled up to me while I was taking in a different pope painting and informed me my mouth was hanging open. “I’d never thought of the term ‘jaw-dropping’ as literal before,” she later said.

Bacon’s varied subjects – the popes; the agitated, solitary, suited men; the biomorphic, often headless forms; the arresting portrait triptychs; the enigmatic, multi-figure tableaus; et al. – were all represented. His turbulent subject matter would be notable even if his technique had been more traditional, but the immediacy of his abstract mark-making in the service of recording that imagery is what gives the work much of its power. His sense of formalism in both composition and presentation – he preferred the paintings be in wide, gilded frames and under glass – adds to this duality of deeply ordered work which appears to have been made largely through improvisational means.

All these years after Bacon’s painting became a formative element in my artistic development, I still find his work viscerally affecting and, with the possible exception of Willem de Kooning’s, perhaps the strongest painting oeuvre of the twentieth century. Francis Bacon died of a heart attack at eighty-two while on a trip to Madrid in 1992. Back in his studio in London’s South Kensington, a canvas sat on the easel,  unfinished.


1 Simon & Schuster (1974).

2 The copy I eventually purchased in the late 1980s was The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon/Third enlarged edition; Thames and Hudson (1988).

3 Those plans involved an attractive young woman who lived in Los Angeles. With her boyfriend.

4 Study after Velasquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X  was exhibited in California in 1999, at San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art. I didn’t become aware of the show The Papal Portraits of 1953, which was comprised of twelve Bacon canvases, until after it closed. Maybe one day I’ll make it to the Des Moines Art Center to see the piece and finally put the feeling of missing out to rest. At least concerning the painting.

I was not yet in kindergarten in 1968 when Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks was released and failed to reach the Billboard 200 album chart. It was over a decade later that I, browsing in a Tower Records store, decided to purchase my first LP by him. Of course I knew “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Moondance,” “Domino,” “Wild Night,” “Wavelength,” and others, but it was Astral Weeks, an album with which I was completely unfamiliar, that I bought – I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the cover, with its attractive leaded-glass-window-like design and double exposure photograph of sunlit trees and a now-impossibly-young-looking Morrison. Maybe it was the evocative title or the “In The Beginning” and “Afterwards” designations for the sides. Maybe it was the poetry – the lines of jazz and blues, of flowing streams of consciousness, of snow, of a ballerina – on the back cover. Whatever prompted my choice,1 the decision has served me well; although I wouldn’t necessarily cite Astral Weeks as my favorite album, it is up there on the list and could very well be the one I’ve listened to the most in my life.

Van Morrison: Astral Weeks; Warner Bros. Records (1968).

Jay Berliner, Richard Davis, Connie Kay, Warren Smith Jr.: these names didn’t mean anything to me back then – jazz, even now, is a genre I don’t know much about; at that time, I knew next to nothing – but it was obvious that what these cats played was so germane and so inspired that it seems the whole ensemble had gone, as Morrison would soon put it, “into the mystic.”2 I’ve read that Morrison would record his guitar/vocal take and the musicians would improvise their parts minutes later, after which Morrison would move on to the next number.3 The songs themselves are stunning – half of them clock in at well over six minutes, allowing a gradual unfolding of emotion, of compassion, of vision. Morrison’s performance is, of course, breathtaking; his idiosyncratic phrasing, so much a part of his style, transforms the words into sounds that are by turns exultant and heartbreaking.

These days, the music to which I paint is almost always either classically-based “new music” or in an ambient vein, but until relatively recently, much of my work time had been spent in the company of Astral Weeks. It made an indelible impression on me during the years just prior to my beginning to paint and has provided untold inspiration since then. Although I don’t believe I’ve ever used imagery taken directly from any of the songs, Astral Weeks informed my burgeoning aesthetic by revealing that grace and redemption could be found in life’s often overwhelming moments of darkness and despair. Dry your eye.


1 It was not Lester Bangs’ insightful essay on the album, “the rock record with the most significance in [his] life….” I wouldn’t read those thoughts until years later, when Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung; Alfred A. Knopf (1987) was published.

2 Compare the Astral Weeks recordings of “Beside You” and “Madame George” to the earlier Bang Records versions, first released in 1973 on the T.B. Sheets album, for an illustration of what they contributed.

3 John Payne, on flute and soprano sax, played in Morrison’s contemporaneous live band and was the only musician present who had heard the songs prior to the sessions.  

I’m not quite sure how I became aware of the work of Ivan Albright. I may have seen an article about him in a back issue of Art in America, I could have discovered him through Katherine Kuh’s The Artist’s Voice: Talks with Seventeen Modern Artists,1 or it’s possible the monograph by Michael Croydon caught my eye at the library and I picked it up.2 In any case, it was the large format, vivid reproductions and abundance of details of the paintings in the latter book which compelled me, starting in the late 1980s, to check it out two or three times a year until the mid-’90s, when I was finally able to purchase a copy.

Albright had artistic forebears in Expressionism – although his figures’ forms are much different than those of Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele, and Max Oppenheimer, they exhibit a similar physical and psychic vulnerability. Albright, however, achieved these results through radically different means than those artists, as well as from anyone else. His meticulous technique, with which he often completed less than one and a half square inches of work per day, produced dense compositions of aged flesh, decrepit environments, and claustrophobic atmospheres. Albright’s work creates a feeling of passing time and revolving space – the surfaces crawl and undulate, and the objects float, rotate, and fall. The figures have preternaturally old, microscopically detailed skin under which one can feel every sensitive nerve. These aspects imbue the work with mystery, and, while disorienting, ultimately foster compassion for the subject.

There have been at least two Albright museum shows since I’ve been familiar with his work – the eponymous 1997 general survey, a major exhibition for which there is a lavish catalogue;3 and the more focused and tantalizingly-titled Flesh in 2018. Both were organized by the Art Institute of Chicago, which has the largest collection of Albright works in the world. Unfortunately, I didn’t know about either until after each show closed.4

During the late ’90s, a good friend of mine was in the Bachelor’s program in studio art at UC Davis. One of her fellow students was living with or married to a young man who happened to be Ivan Albright’s grandson. My friend, knowing what a fan I was of Albright’s work, was thoughtful enough to wrangle an invitation to their home for me, and the four of us spent a lovely evening together. They prepared a nice meal, we talked about art, we listened to the Abba Gold compilation. After dinner, I was shown a portfolio of Albright’s lithographs and a bronze portrait sculpture.5 I believe all the prints I saw were based on images he’d previously used for paintings. Since Albright’s singular vision draws its strength not only from his imagery and technique, but also his use of saturated color, the black and white lithographs lack the idiosyncratic power of the canvases. However, his draftsmanship is impressive, and even in monochrome, his subject matter continues to be striking. My favorite of the pieces I was shown, a 1947 self-portrait, was also – perhaps not coincidentally – the most heavily detailed and varied in texture; in it, Albright sits in a painstakingly carved wooden chair before a lace-covered table set with a still life. Of the prints I saw, it came closest to capturing the oppressive feel of the paintings.

I subsequently did not spend any more time with the couple, but am still, all these years later, grateful for the hospitality they showed me. My friend has moved several times since then, to several different cities. I haven’t seen her for quite a few years now, although we do exchange the occasional letter, card, or email. That evening remains the single time I’ve seen actual work by Ivan Albright, who passed away in 1983 at age eighty-six, before I had ever heard of him.


1 Harper & Row (1962).

2 Although Ivan Albright; Abbeville Press (1978) is eye-catching – it measures 15 1/2” x 12” x 1 1/2”, it isn’t so easy to pick up – it weighs in at over 7 pounds, 2 ounces.

3 Ivan Albright; AIC/Hudson Hills Press (1997).

4 I’m often on the frontage road of the information superhighway.

5 I also saw a painting which I recognized as being the work of Ivan’s father, Adam Emory Albright.