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book review: the undressed art

Post #478 • February 22, 2005, 8:31 AM • 7 Comments

Peter Steinhart has made a valuable contribution to the literature about contemporary art, on a topic that was sure to win tenure for no denizen of any ivy-decked faculty lounge: a history, much of it recent, of figure drawing groups and contemporary efforts to draw realistically from observation. Steinhart is a naturalist by trade, a former editor of Audubon and a nature writer whose work has appeared in Harper's and the New York Times. The Undressed Art: Why We Draw benefits from the naturalist's approach - to observe what's going on around him and work backwards into theory based on the facts, rather than the converse method used by several decades' worth of art historians.

Just as we would expect a nature writer to get outside and see some nature, Steinhart faithfully attends figure drawing groups around the Bay Area. From this basis he muses on learning to draw, modelling and its history, drawing studio etiquette, the difference between drawings and pictures, the struggle to improve, and the place of drawing in contemporary art. He interviews artists and models by the score and cites sources going all the way back to Pliny.

Groups all over the country get together to draw the figure. Here in Miami I know of four of them offhand. Figure drawing groups are a longstanding, pervasive movement in art that has touched on the lives of many professionals and many more amateurs, and I believe that its lack of scholarly treatment until now indicates a perversion of the celebrity-driven art world: it happily admits popular insults to highbrow taste, but doesn't want to deal with the fact that highbrow taste, such as artful figure drawing, may itself be popular enough to constitute a distinct trend. Really, The Undressed Art ought to accompany an exhibition, but I'm not going to hold my breath until a curator somewhere sees fit to assemble it.

Some of Steinhart's most intriguing observations come from something I'd like to see more of applied to the study of art: science. His chapter on learning to draw provides an overview of the psychology studies regarding the development of childrens' abilities to form images. He makes a convincing case for a connection between creativity and wanderlust, which fits the facts well and explains why I think about moving out of Miami every eighteen hours or so. He cites a study that suggests that different kinds of art activate different areas of the brain, and that your preference for some styles over other styles may be akin to your preference for some kinds of mood-altering chemicals over others.

Steinhart is also an astute observer of himself. In a chapter called "Waiting on a Muse," he writes:

Drawing is not something you do perfunctorily. It's something you can do only if you are attentive. If you stop drawing for a while, those fractious republics in the mind, the ones that must all carry on a polite conversation for one to draw well, stop talking to one another. Without the constant discipline of practice, they forget they ever knew one another. If you stop drawing, you lose your connections. Lots of events in life can alter your concentration. Poor health can do it. A change of scene can do it. A heightened emotional state or depression can do it. I draw in bars. But I don't draw well in bars, especially with a second drink in front of me.

Anyone who takes figure drawing seriously will recognize this as quite true.

Generously illustrated (although I wouldn't have minded even more plates), The Undressed Art supplied an enjoyable, readable, personal examination of contemporary drawing as a practice and its relation to the larger art world - how it fits into it, but not squarely, and how its adherents go on anyway.

this book at Amazon
this book at Knopf




February 22, 2005, 7:17 PM

Press people down at Knopf inform me that Steinhart will be speaking this evening (8pm) at Cooper Union. Info (pdf).


Anna L. Conti

February 22, 2005, 7:21 PM

Great review, Franklin - thanks. Fellow blogger, Rachael Balduffington has mentioned this book a few times, and I almost bought it the last time I was in the SFMOMA book store. Now I wish I had.

Being an acute observer does tend to carry over from the art-making part of life to all the other parts of life.... or maybe it's the other way 'round?



February 22, 2005, 11:18 PM

Allow me to recommend a "cousin" of the above book:

"Visual Intelligence: How We Create What We See" by Donald D. Hoffman


Anna L. Conti

February 23, 2005, 4:31 AM

The Hoffman book sounds good, OldPro. I ordered it, but it's coming by slow boat (2 to 4 weeks.) If this topic comes up again in a month or so, I'll let you know what I think.



February 23, 2005, 7:14 AM

Anna: It is "popular science", so called, but it is not only fascinating in general but very helpful when thinking about art because it gets into the nitty gritty of what our brains do with visual information. If all of our bloggers would read it they would be a lot more clear about some of what goes on in their heads when the look at and think about visual art.

Anyway, if and when you get it, I hope you get a kick out of it.



February 23, 2005, 9:46 AM

see, i prefer drawing to painting in many ways for many resons (it's immediate, vicseral and lets not forget cheaper) - but i won't get into all of them.

i love how drawing is transportable and 'in the moment' - deserted island and no paper? well there' s a rather large tablet of sand here...

i actually did some of my best drawings while living in san francisco with my wife. she would pose for me at china beach. there, all the nude male lovers would prance through the sand with each other. the homeless at city hall, (i lived closeby in the tenderloin) would lay in the grass for hours while i drew them in every mannerism that i could think of and feel. there was a bar in little italy that had figure drawing on the weekend. here i met many drawing fanatics who also liked to have a pitcher on the table with them. it started at 1:00 p.m. and you paid 10 bucks for the model who would pass out for hours at a time. (kind of reminding me of a William Blake poem, which states something like, 'mother mother the church is cold, but the ale house is comfy and warm '... if god wanted people to be happy there would be ale at church ? )

franklin, i think that realistic figure drawing is considered by art gatekeepers to be (negatively) academic, outmoded, idealistic, (white male artist and young female model so-to-speak) etc. also, the art market would collapse if there was a paradigm shift - many people don't draw enough - this phenomenon would exclude and close down all those art schools that teach marketing strategies instead of perception. SFAI is one of them.
people born with a drawing gift have very few options today - even walt disney is rolling in his grave!

drawing is like putting in golf, miss a few games and you' re bound to loose it.



February 24, 2005, 8:09 AM

Nice review and I'm glad there are more places for talk about the reason why we are all drawn to draw.
Take care,



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