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george bethea, reloaded

Post #325 • July 19, 2004, 6:13 AM • 41 Comments

George Bethea (yes, that George Bethea) at the gallery of AI/MIU. Bethea took his inspiration from photographs of earth made from space, and piled on the paint inches thick to make topographic abstractions. Many of them succeeded like gangbusters. The surfaces recalled salt-fired ceramics executed with an infinity of colors, achieving complexities of hues, shapes, and textures that seemed made by nature rather than man.

Walter Darby Bannard, Bethea, and frequent commenter Jack.

I neglected to take home a card, so I can't post the show's information. Check back here after lunch.




July 19, 2004, 5:04 PM

George Bethea is, without doubt, a gifted and serious painter. He shows skill in handeling the materials he chooses to work with. I respect the headstrong attitude with which he works and a total disregard of contemporary trends and fashion. It is the paint and materials with which he works that are important and I believe this is the part that will hang on, the part that makes the work strong. Many in Miami may not fully appreciate this work because they don't "say" anything outside the realm of Art. Some that do appreciate them will enjoy the "effects" they yield. Are they more than these "effects", I am not sure. I don't know if this is a criticism or not but if I wanted to reproduce the inside of a mineral encrusted cave for the set of a movie this is the way to do it. Very well done. Judging from George's previous work I am unsure where he may turn next. He is a Modernist mining the work he admires most and using it to produce his own. Or is it his own? I don't know.



July 19, 2004, 6:31 PM

These are damn good paintings. One, in particular, struck me with its "effects", as Ware, in his odd, back-handed review, calls them (all paintings are collections of "effects", Ware): The second one down in the set above. You can't see the colors very clearly in the reproduction, but something is going on with sand, or interference paint, or something, which makes for a peculiar coloristic richness I have never seen before. This is nothing less than straightforward, no strings abstract painting on the highest level, hung in the street lobby of a commercial building where one is naturally inclined to just walk past. When I was there there weren't even any labels. There is nothing even remotely like it or up to its level in any gallery or museum in Miami, as far as I know. I suspect that, aside from this page, there will be no further reviews of any kind, and the only people who will see them will be the students going back and forth to classes. As an example, in a nutshell, this is why Miami is a second-rate art town.

Ware, your grudging appreciation is welcome, I'm sure, but the "reproduction of the inside of a cave" statement is right in line with the old "my kid could do it" remarks that used to be thrown at the Abstract Expressionist artists 50 years ago, and so on back into time. Arrghh! And it is hard to know what to make of "Or is it his own?". What is that all about? Whose is it? And so what? And who cares "where he turns next"?. This is where he is now, and it is good enough for me.



July 19, 2004, 9:11 PM

I fully agree that these are "damn good paintings". The pitfall of so many may be to try to be "original" or "personal" in their work . One must have roots, one must emulate great works. But how closely must one adhere to others? Must a painter today wanting to make good work follow this particular aesthetic, this "look" of Betheas work to be good, or are there other approaches? How long did it take for Olitski to get where he is today and where did his inspiration come from? Did he follow his own instincts? Where did the "look" of his current work (2000-2002) come from? Did he borrow it or was it from the working of his materials throughout the years of painting every day?



July 19, 2004, 11:27 PM

You are being rather elliptical, Ware. Are you saying Bethea's paintings look too much like Olitski's? If that is what you are saying then say it. Then there would be two contingent questions: first, is it so, and second, what difference does it make.

Getting past the first will be something of a problem, because, although both artists make paintings that are very loose, painterly and full of surface effects they really are not very similar looking. Furthermore, dozens, if not hundreds, of artists used these methods to make paintings in the 20th Century, and I would say there are a couple Bethea may not even be aware of who have done paintings much closer to his than Olitski's, especially some of those involved in the European Arte Informel ("formless art") movement of the mid-century. Bethea has not invented some sort of radically new style or method, but what he is drawing from is a general current in recent art history, not the work of one artist.

If this is what you perceived to be a problem, I hope this will help clear it up.



July 19, 2004, 11:43 PM

I don't know if Ware and beWare are the same person. Please select handles that help the discussion along. (Is beWare the same as Shaolin Soccer Mom? Again, if you're consistent we can track your thinking over more than one post.)



July 20, 2004, 1:10 AM

Got a call from Miami inviting our non-profit: A.R.T. to come down to run a studio workshop. This person needs input from local artists. Anyone interested?

The work we do is backed by The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.


Tim Lefens
Executive Director
11 Whippoorwill Way
Belle Mead, NJ 08502, USA
email: (or click above)

A.R.T. website

To view A.R.T. CBS Evening News Video, go to CBS video



July 20, 2004, 1:28 AM

I don't see the connection between Bethea's work and Arte Informel being stronger than the Olitski one. You are going to have to name someone to convince me of this. I guess my only point is someone like Olitski or any other accomplished artist, for example, Rothko, who developed into his own after years of working, created something that was uniquely his own. Again, I believe the beauty and "greatness" of the work from someone like Olitski or Rothko( and others) is that they found it on their own, through working, not looking at someone else's work to borrow from. I just find this method a bit more rewarding. Call me crazy.
In the end, George's paintings are better than any in the town, I agree.
I guess one does what one must to get the job done!



July 20, 2004, 4:30 AM

You seem to be obsessively centered in the virtue of "uniquely one's own". No artist is unique; no art is unique. We are all in this together, borrowing, stealing, revising. reworking. Everything comes out of something else. Braque caught onto Cezanne and then Picasso caught on to Braque and they copied Cezanne and each other fiendishly for years and came up with Cubism, which laid the foundation for abstract art, making one masterpeice after another along the way. Your hero Rothko spent years making imitations of Milton Avery who spent years making imitations of Matisse, if you will. Leonardo learned at the feet of Verocchio. So what? "Unique" is a big non-issue. the important thing is whether the art is any good. I'm not going to spend a day digging up old paintings to prove whether or not or to what extent Bethea is derivative of Olitski because it doesn't matter. (And I don't know anyway; for all I know he sits with an Olitski book and copies Olitski paintings, though I have no idea what paintings those may be). I don't care. What I saw on the wall was really good, and it is part of a long tradition of very painterly "formless" painting which goes back at least 50 years. Besides, one ccould do worse than be influenced by Olitski. Part of originality is knowing whom to be influenced by anyway. And it probably is a much better thing to be influenced by one very good artist than to be influenced by the trite mannerisms of an entire generation of third-raters, which is what we see regularly in Miami.



July 20, 2004, 5:29 AM

On originality: at least Picasso grabbed what he wanted and painted it himself. Rubens hired others to paint it for him while he traveled. In a similar fashion, Rodin quit "carving stone" when his stone carver died. He said he couldn't find anyone else good enough.

oldpro got it right when he said half of being original is knowing who to copy. Time to get over mannered notions of "newness". The more demonstrably new something is, the more likely it is to be wanting. Art resists demonstration.



July 20, 2004, 5:36 AM

Perhaps I exaggerated oldpro's point. But I agree with my exaggeration.

BTW, did anyone know that a GRAMMAR BOOK (Eats, Shoots & Leaves) has been a bestseller in the UK and the USA?



July 20, 2004, 5:46 AM

As the illiterate said, "My grammer died in her sleep"



July 20, 2004, 5:51 AM

Ware:I am quite familiar with Olitski's work and from what i've seen of Bethea's I don't think they "look" a like . When we are speaking of visual art arn't we talking about how something looks. Rothko was doing fields of color at the same time as Newman,they both influenced one another.



July 20, 2004, 6:03 AM

What happened to Rothko and Avery's work as it developed out of imitation? Could we say it became their own? A mature Rothko painting is a far cry from a mature Avery, is it not?



July 20, 2004, 3:00 PM

I probably should not have used the word "imitation"; it was more rhetorical than accurate. To some extent, at least, every artist has characteristics in common with other artists and every artist has a recognizable style. Abstract Expressionism placed a premium on invention and therefore became a movement wherein each of the really accomplished practitioners developed a very distinct "look". Some, like deKooning, influenced other artists immediately and widely. Others, like Rothko and Newman, did not. Still others, like Pollock, were influential but the influence was less obvious on the surface. One could probably rank recent artists on some scale of "uniqueness", but I am not at all sure that it would correlate well with a rank of "goodness". This is an interesting and complex art historical issue but the problem is that we are spending all our time here discussing whether or not Bethea's work looks like Olitski, which, to whatever extent it may be true or not, is a complete side issue. The only certain consequence of a mass effort to be "unique" is an ironic uniformity, which pervasively infects the current so called "avant-garde". Art doesn't need to be different, it needs to be better.



July 20, 2004, 3:09 PM

I can't diagree with that!



July 20, 2004, 3:16 PM




July 20, 2004, 6:11 PM

I like "diagree" though. Sounds like a word. Maybe it could mean "disagree to a degree".



July 20, 2004, 6:59 PM

Risking the high probability of repeating myself I want to give one more example. Mondrian. Using the method of the cubist structure, like many artists during the first half of the 20th century, could not move around it, he had to go through it. Many artists stayed there mining the cubist approach, some making really good pictures (Leger, Gris), others making second and third rate cubist pictures, never able to "free" themselves from its conventions, or do them as well. Mondrian, as I see it, was able to use it as a means to an end. His own body of work eventually shows itself through years of working. A mature body of work that has the relationship with cubism, but also unique and separate from it. This is what I truly admire and find wonder in. How he was able to accomplish this. Out of all the cubist derived pictures Mondrian comes out showing his own individual struggle with it. He called it Neo-Plasticism as we know. Granted, this doesn't happen often or easily.



July 20, 2004, 8:03 PM

You don't free yourself from conventions, you use them. Conventions are tools, foundations to build on. Cubism went in a number of directions in the 'teens and twenties, among them the extreme simplification exemplied by the De Stijl movement which organized in 1917 and included quite a few like-minded artists such as van Doesburg and Vantongerloo, a number of architects and a magazine (De Stijl) which gave its name to the movement. Then there were the Russian construtivists who went in a similar direction at the same time, and others in France and Germany. Mondrian was in the middle of a large art movement, literally surrounded by people with a similar approach who were making similar art to his. His style was anything but unique. He was just BETTER. I get the distinct impression that if you were in Paris in 1920 you would be telling Mondrian to stop painting like all those other people and make his art unique!



July 20, 2004, 8:48 PM

beware: are you an artist yourself? If so, is your work unique and nonderivative.

I would like to see it if this is the case. Please post some or a link where I can find it.



July 20, 2004, 10:14 PM

I would never claim that my work is unique and non-derivative. I am not in this to reflect my own work. This has to do with a pusuit to understand how art works and maybe why. In the end it probably doesn't even matter, I simply enjoy discussing it for my mental health.

Was Mondrian's pursuit not his own? How he evolved through Cubism and into "Neo-Plasticism". Could we say Mondrian used the conventions of Cubism to discover new ones? His severe simplification of form, resulting in his "Compositions", yes it came from cubism, as did a lot of other styles... he didn't see someone else doing it and then do it, it happened through his own method of working. A Mondrian is a Mondrian. Are you suggesting all these guys got together as a group and said "let's paint like this" ? Did he not discover new conventions, so to speak, or did he see someone else doing it and say "I am going to try that, that seems to be a good direction, using primaries,black and white".

I am sure you have a logical explanation for this one too.



July 20, 2004, 10:19 PM

By the way I have a copy of a good new book, "The Rape Of The Masters" by Roger Kimball.



July 20, 2004, 10:37 PM

Well, i thought my very brief outline of what Mondrian was doing and who else was doing the same would be enough, but if you want to know more about the day-by-day evolution of the methods he and others used you better get a book on the de Stijl movement and read it. Yes, in a way they did all get together and say "let's paint this way". it was very doctrinaire, as art movements go. If I remember correctly, when van Doesburg had the temerity to introduce diagonals in the 20s Mondrian quit the movement in a huff! Again, for the 3rd or 4th time, it does not matter. What matters is how good the art is.

Kimball is great. He gives everyone trouble and does it in a literate way. Everyone hates him for it. You are not allowed to like him in "liberal" circles. They all characterize him as a "conservative" but I think he is a radical.



July 21, 2004, 12:07 AM

On Mondrian: van Doesburg was a heretic, according to the principles that Mondrain used for painting. The right angle not only contained the basic "truth" of the universe, it was also a corrective element, one that would put mankind back on the straight and narrow path to correct religious alignment. Van Doesburg was lucky PM did not put him on the hot seat or stretch his bones on the rack.

Another example of how good art is done for all the wrong reasons.

For Momoko: Interesting that van Doesburg was not his real name.



July 21, 2004, 5:25 AM

Enough of your "expertise" oldpro. I choose to "fall short" following my own instincts than "Succeed" in following somebody else's. Each time I approach a flat surface I have no preconceptions, I am not following anybody's lead, I'm searching. The "look " is found in the working, not in the acknowledgment of others trodden ground. My work is often compared to others no doubt, work of artist's whom I admire, without ever having them in mind while working.



July 21, 2004, 6:02 AM

I see a difference between trying to "recreate" good art and discovering it for oneself. It's not like a math problem, following prescriptions and formulas for me. It is more like an organism developing naturally from one to the other, almost as if they had a life of their own. I guess I'm a romantic.



July 21, 2004, 7:30 AM

Ware, beWare, and Beware ... this is getting better.



July 21, 2004, 2:11 PM

Well, Beware, I certainly hope your stubborn doggedness serves you well in the studio, but frankly I don't think such a single-minded "I've gotta be me" is very conducive to getting anything going. At this point in the history of art just about anything you do will look like something else. Agonizing over it is simply counterproductive. If you bother to look a little more closely at what you dismissively term "expertise", that is, art history, you will find that every great artist of any kind who ever existed came to maturity in full possession of all the baggage of the time. Many of them made no secret of borrowing and stealing anything they found handy. And why not? It is not what you take, it is what you make. If you are really serious about making art you do everything you can to make your art better, and that includes using anything that works and getting yourself and your ego out of the way. The hyperoriginality you clutch so fervently is a fiction; it just does not exist. Give it up and start thinking about improving your art, not personalizing it.



July 21, 2004, 3:09 PM

beware, every artist follows their own instincts just as everything one does is an act of self expression. Usually before we open our mouth and most assuredly after we do we are expressing our selves. Even though every great or not so great artist follows their instinct similarities can be drawn between their's and others work. This inclues your friend Rothko and of course Mondrian. If you think otherwise please give an example. Yes, Bethea uses thick, gloppy paint as do thousands of artists over the past 80 years. The problem with saying so definitively that Bethea is influenced by Olitski is that the paintings don't LOOK a like.

Please post some examples of your own work because your rantings are sounding very self serving!



July 21, 2004, 3:25 PM

I agree with everything you've just said. I am not worried about looking like someone else, I don't think about it. I've looked at my share of art, identify closely with some more than others of course. What if someone spent a career making pictures everyone compared to Matisse for instance (present day). People may say, "These are very good, wonderful
paintings, they remind me so much of Matisse". Granted, the pictures are good, that is an accomplishment. When Matisse was doing his work at the time "Red Studio" for instance, can you actually say people were telling him, "hey, wonderful painting Matisse, it reminds me so much of...! Whose name would go there?



July 21, 2004, 3:51 PM

My recent statement, is in reference to oldpro's last.



July 21, 2004, 4:08 PM

"I told him that this did not belong to him, and he was a civilized man and hence it was his function to show us harmonious things...Gauguin is certainly not without talent, but how difficult it is for him to find his own way. He is alway's poaching on someone's ground; now he is pillaging the savages of Oceania".



July 21, 2004, 4:21 PM

beware: i I found some examples of what I believe to be your work at Is this it. If so, you've borrowed quite a bit



July 21, 2004, 4:31 PM

Honestly, Camille, how very quaint--but of course, you are quite superannuated. I suppose you think I should have left those African masks alone, losing the opportunity to make a big splash and look terribly advanced in the process (even though I was using very old sources). You really must wise up, you know, not that it matters at your time of life. The thing is to be noticed, to shock and astonish the public into submission (the public may balk at first, but it always comes around for fear of looking retardataire). If you don't believe me, look at my auction records, and compare them to the chump change your pretty little landscapes sell for. Besides, pretty is not sexy; brutality is.



July 21, 2004, 5:00 PM

Gravity make a telling point that we are all overlooking: Bethea's paintings do not actually look much like Olitski's. If they don't look like them, there isn't much to be said. Of course this depends on what we mean by visible difference; Bethea's paintings look more like Olitski's than they look like Malevitch's, but this just makes comparisons ludicrous. Gravity's point really does put a wet blanket on the whole discussion, it seems to me.

As for Pissarro, when he said this Gauguin was painting circles around Pissarro while happily stealing from him and everyone else.



July 21, 2004, 5:09 PM

Beware, how can you say you are not worried about looking like anyone else and that you don't think about it? You are obsessed with it. What the hell else have we been talking about all this time???



July 21, 2004, 5:57 PM

Is it possible we are both denying particular "things" in order to support our points of view, as defense mechanisms regarding our opinions? Personally, I feel I am not concerned with the issue of looking like somebody else. It is others that see "our" work and make the comparisons. To my knowledge I have not sought out to pattern myself after any specific artist, I am undoubtably influenced by others, this I can't control. Is there not a difference? I believe there is a difference between influence and derivation, is there not? By the way, you did not fill in the blank from my 8:25 comment concerning Matisse's "Red Studio". Why not? Irrelevant? After all, I am trying to learn something, I am learning all the time. I am not a "professional" or an expert at anything. If I find reason to believe all of what I have stated is bullshit I will admit it.



July 21, 2004, 6:35 PM

When I went to college back in the Dark Ages we had a saying about the academic thought patterns of our professors. They are like, we agreed, a bird flying in ever-decreasing circles until it flies up it own asshole. At this point, I think that's where we are. Influence, derivation, whether Matisse looks like Matisse, Mondrian like Mondrian, Bethea like Olitski, you like who or what - it has all descended to the clarity of the interior of some anonymous avian intestinal tract. Please, enough already.



July 21, 2004, 6:46 PM

Beware, you say you do not pattern your work after other artists but you assume others do ? I looked up your work,if it is your work, on and it seems to me that you are doing straight forward color field ripoffs, ala, olitski, Morris Louis and others. There is one image that reminds me of guston or still but not nearly as good .

Your like a dog chasing his tail. As I alluded to before your comments are more about you trying to justify your own artistic inadequacies/existence.



July 22, 2004, 12:14 AM

Absolutely wonderful "debate" Thanks to all. Especially "oldpro" for his insight. The specific post from the 19th at 9:30 pm resonates quite well. Well said! All of this will be used in my classes as fodder for the facade of "originality" that I often encounter in young students. Can't wait to share it with them. I hope I've made no enemies, I had no intention in upsetting anyone. Anything said and taken personally is a shame and I apologize. A true test of character.
Until next time, take care!



July 22, 2004, 12:57 AM

Beware, this was just a good-natured give and take discussion, what a blog is for. No one has their nose out of joint, and if they do, well, all's fair in love and war and art criticism.



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