Earlier this year I had the fabulous opportunity to create an art-filled birthday party for a friend and collector. Troy-Skott, who with his husband JR had bought this painting
back in 2008, was giving himself a Paris sabbatical for a big (we won’t say which) birthday. He planned to taking the time and space to immerse himself in the art and history of Paris and to make some art himself while he was there.
He wanted to include his circle of friends in the experience, so he invited them to a send-off party at which they could experience a taste of his upcoming art sabbatical. This is where I came in. He’d observed that modern art often intimidated the uninitiated, and wondered if we could do some kind of presentation and activity to make it more accessible. Together, we came up with a plan: I would give a very rapid and VERY opinionated overview of modern art history—wait, let me back up: cocktails were served first!—and then distribute canvases, paints, brushes, and one still-life object per table, give them a method to proceed, and finally let them loose making a cubist painting.
Why a cubist painting? Well, I started with the birth of modernism in the visual arts: Impressionists and their immediate forerunners were beginning to be surrounded by photography, mass printing, and other technologies. Artists became more self-conscious about the difference between an object and their own perception of it, as well as the difference between their perception of something and its representation. This begat a certain self-consciousness about looking at representations (particularly among those making the representations). The Cubists were arguably the first to represent that self-consciousness itself. The difference between the flat representation that you’re looking at and the object being represented was the subject of the painting. And the Cubists were among the more theoretical and wordy of the modern pioneers (although the Surrealists later gave them a run for their money), so they left behind pages and pages of theory that no one reads anymore, yet come in handy for teaching this stuff. Artists like Picasso found that the theory got old fast, but his early dive into those Cubist experiments made his later work possible.
I happened to have a goat skull laying around, as well as a toy accordion, both of which seemed like appropriately Cubist subjects. To keep the palettes reasonably coherent (and cubist) I pre-mixed the paint in gradations of brown, orange, green, and blue-grey. I briefly gave them a mission: Look for the shapes that represent the various planes of the three-dimensional object and outline them in black. Move one chair over. Repeat. Fill in the outlined shapes with tonal gradations of the same color.
The group’s skill levels were all over the map, time was short, my instructions even shorter, and cocktails were being served, but the results were nonetheless respectable.