Things You Should Know About

Consignment Forms - Are They Really Necessary?

Art Business: Yawn, right? Still, I think it's important enough to write about. Of all the artists that I know, the successful ones (read: make their main income from art) are totally involved in the business side of their art, not just the creation of it. The romantic stereotype of the messy artist who just creates in a cluttered studio is really the image of an artist who won't survive.

Example of a Gallery Consignment Form

Example of a Gallery Consignment Form

It’s hard to stand up for yourself as an artist, especially if you’re just starting out, but it’s a good habit to get into. It can be tempting to just hope for the best in terms of a gallery relationship, but that’s rather naive. Nobody is going to look out for your interests except you.

An Artist-Gallery relationship takes work, a lot like a marriage. The first few months may even be bright and sunny like a honeymoon. If you talk to someone from either party though, you’re likely to hear some disgruntled experiences. Why nobody would want to try and improve this experience through more open and transparent communication is beyond me. (I suspect it’s because this approach takes work from both sides. Easier to do nothing and think positive, right?) I spend a lot of time asking questions and getting to know them before making a commitment. Artists need to make it clear what they want, listen to what the gallery wants, and then work with the gallery to make that happen - don't just sit back and wait for the checks to roll in. It doesn't work that way.

I've worked behind the scenes in a handful of galleries previously and have helped curate and organize exhibitions, so I know how difficult artists can be: missing deadlines, unresponsiveness, etc. How would a gallery react if they spent money advertising and curating a show and the artist then sold the advertised work on the side before the opening? An agreement discussed beforehand could state that would be bad form for an artist to do - sounds obvious, but it’s been done.

Galleries sign contracts for properties, loans, advertising in magazines. Why wouldn’t they sign one with an artist they’re doing business with? Perhaps because it lessens their liability. What happens if an artwork is lost during shipping? It’s not uncommon. The artist loses inventory (which equals real dollars), but that consignment doesn’t monetarily affect the gallery unless they agreed to bear some responsibility. What other businesses function without contracts?

Plenty of homes are purchased without major problems occurring during the process. Would that convince you that an escrow agreement was unnecessary and to just trust all the parties involved? People seem to think of consignment forms as a sign of mistrust. A contract is not a pessimistic statement or expectation that things will turn out poorly, it’s protecting you from the not uncommon reality that things can happen.

My five main reasons for using consignment forms:

1. If you’re a self-employed artist, nobody is looking out for you. You need to look out for yourself and protect your work. It’s hard to stand up for yourself sometimes, but nobody else is going to do it for you.

2. It protects both parties involved. If you were consigning any other physical object for sale, such as power tools or furniture, wouldn't you want to have something signed as proof that the agreement actually exists? Fedex and UPS have you sign to verify receipt of a package. Otherwise, how do you prove that the exchange ever occurred in the first place? Art is always talked about as a commodity, but so much is often agreed to by handshake alone. The gallery could have purchased it separately from a third party. A contract is as good as the paper it's signed on, meaning, no contract, no good. Get it in writing. Plan for the worst case scenario, and create a consignment agreement that will prevent you from ever getting there.

I’ve heard horror stories from other artists: galleries that closed and consigned artwork was confiscated as payment for debts by the gallery’s creditors (consigned = still the property of the artist, the gallery does not own it); galleries that didn't pay what they agreed to pay when selling (discounts given); galleries that denied work was ever even given to them or somehow lost paintings. Galleries selling prints without the artist’s permission (see #10 below about reproduction rights - a gallery cannot unilaterally do this). I've also heard stories from the gallery side of things, too, so why wouldn't both sides draw up a fair agreement that protects everyone?

3. It should keep everyone involved happy. Nothing is guaranteed, but if both the artist and gallery are all on the same page at the outset and have the same understanding of the agreement, misunderstandings should have much less chance of occurring.

4. The art world is in reality a small community. If an artist sets certain precedents in a gallery relationship, good or bad, that affects other artists who come afterwards. If an artist accepts lousy commission rates just for the sake of a wall to hang on and a little ego, the gallery will continue to use those lousy rates because they can, and that artist has now made it harder for every artist who comes after him to get a decent agreement. If one artist walks away from what they perceive as a bad deal, but the next ten artists agree to it, nothing will change. But if one artist walks away from a bad deal, and subsequent artists do too, that sends a message to the gallery that maybe they need to change something to get the good artists in the door. Artists need to stick to their guns, or be prepared to walk. Artists should realize that each of their business decisions, even on a small scale, affects not only their career, but other artists and the art world at large.

5. You know where your work is, and how long its been there. Obviously art is not the same as a loaf of bread at the grocery store that needs to be replaced after a few days, but it's a good idea to refresh your work in a gallery from time to time. Collectors like to see something new and it's a good way to stay involved with your gallery. If you don't have some sort of record of these things, and have multiple paintings out at multiple galleries, it's very easy to forget how much something was priced at, or what size it was, or how it was framed. Documentation is your friend.

It creates a record of your work, your exhibition history, your collectors. This is provenance, which can help determine authenticity later down the road.

A few things to keep in mind, and to ask for when negotiating with a gallery (your email correspondence is also documentation):

6. 50/50 is not a good deal. Artists, you should be insisting on at least 60/40. I can't say this enough, and I can already hear the galleries complaining, but hear me out. Artists have rent/mortgage, utility payments, car payments, grocery bills, and more, just like gallery owners, as well as the upfront costs of paying for all the materials to create something (paint, canvas, stretchers, etc), the time spent to create it (often many more hours than you know), plus framing the artwork and shipping it to the gallery. What about airfare to get the artist to the opening reception? I know galleries have other expenses. However, galleries tend to represent multiple artists, even at times upwards of 40+, while artists tend to be represented by, let's say, 4-5 galleries. So, even if a lot of the artists represented in a gallery aren't selling, chances are good that a few are, and the gallery will be earning income from that. Even with 4-5 galleries, there is still a good chance that an artist will go for long periods of time without selling anything.

If galleries would purchase some of the work outright from an artist like they used to, it would be an immense help. Years ago when an artist had an exhibition, a gallery might purchase 1/3 of the new work. What about even one or two pieces? Not only would this give the artist the ability to continue to survive and create, but now the gallery is really invested in selling the work, because they own it, rather than having no horse in the race as is the case with consignments.

7. Frames should be dealt with separately in consignments, and not subject to commissions. Why is the artist expected to eat this cost? If an artist gave an unframed work to a gallery and the gallery had to go to the expense of framing it, the gallery would want to be reimbursed for that expense, and rightly so. Well, so should artists. Here's how I break it down (see the image above):

Step 1: Gallery Retail Price (the price a buyer pays) - Frame Cost = Adjusted Retail.

Step 2: Divide the Adjusted Retail into the previously agreed commission rates. A 60/40 agreement would give the artist 60%.

Step 3: Add Frame Cost to whichever party paid for it. Boom. If the gallery supplied the frame, the Frame Cost is added to their commission, but since artists usually take care of this expense, it would be added to their commission. I don't know why galleries are so averse to this. Presentation is important and artists need to recoup their Frame Cost if they're going to continue to present their work well.

(One suggestion I've heard from galleries, since they usually insist on a 50/50 split, is to double the frame cost in the Gallery Retail Price. This way, when the commissions are split down the middle, the artist DOES get reimbursed for the frame, but this unnecessarily inflates the price for the buyer and also pays the gallery more money for a frame they didn't supply.)

Now, a gallery might be paying for a few other things like magazine ads or exhibition brochures - these are definitely expensive, and the artist probably never sees the cost of any of this. This then is a negotiating point at the outset of the relationship - who pays for what? Does the artist pay for frames and shipping to the gallery, while the gallery pays for x number of ads per yer? Lay it all out on the table and agree to it beforehand.

8. When a gallery sells a painting (at least in CA), they are required by law to give the artist the name and address of the collector. It's a state law*, and if the artist requests it and the gallery refuses, it's a misdemeanor. If galleries are so concerned that their artists are going to try to sell directly to the collector, maybe the gallery should reconsider who they represent. Artists, you are entitled to this info, but you will probably permanently break a gallery’s trust if you go around them to sell directly to their collectors. Be a good partner and respect the relationship. If a gallery is doing well for an artist, the artist will have no reason to do anything other than paint, which is what we want to be doing anyways.

9. You can always say No. Artists - if you're not getting what you're asking for, or feel like you're compromising just for 'exposure,' you can ALWAYS say No and walk away. Maybe it would be better NOT to sign on with a gallery; instead regroup and work on strengthening your art. Don't be hungry for 'representation' or 'exposure.' Make your art your best ambassador.

10. ALL reproduction and copyrights remain exclusively with the Artist. Your forms should clearly state that it is only the physical artwork being sold, and copyright as well as any and all rights for reproduction in any form remain with the artist. Think of them as two separate things: a physical artwork that hangs on a wall, and an image that can be reproduced (prints, postcards, etc.). The latter rights to reproduction always remain with the artist unless they are explicitly sold as such. Galleries (or anyone else) cannot make postcards, posters, or anything else using an artist’s image without their permission, but I know instances of this happening. (If anyone in the Illustration or freelance world wants to weigh in on this with more detail that would be awesome.)

So you start to see why artists might seem so crazy - we have to manage not only the creative side, protecting the playful child-like approach, anticipating and responding to new experiences in order to create, but we have to balance it with the responsible, grown-up side of doing business in the art world. Add to that a preponderance of galleries that jump at the first mention of 'consignment forms," and it can be precarious at times to maintain those two worlds and yet not have them influence each other too much. Like I said at the outset, I'm hoping this improves Artist-Gallery relationships, puts more out on the table and up for discussion. If you want something, ask for it. Also, listen for (or ask if you don't hear it) what the other party wants or needs. Stay involved. If it doesn't sound like it will work, there are plenty of galleries out there.

OK, now I'd love to hear from you. Are you an artist? What are you experiences? How about galleries? Do you have something to add that I might have missed? Let's start a discussion about this and make it the norm for every artwork to be accompanied by a consignment form.

*Want the nitty-gritty? Here's the 1909 CA law requiring Consignees (Galleries) to give the name AND address of the Purchaser (Collector) to the Consignors (Artist) upon request.

Required Information

Stats. 1909,c. 706.p. 1081, Section 1.

It is hereby made the duty of every commission merchant, broker, factor or consignee, to whom any property is consigned or entrusted for sale, to make, when accounting thereof or subsequently, upon the written demand of his principal or consignor, a true written statement setting forth the names and address of the person or persons to whom a sale of the said property, or any portion thereof, was made. The quantity so sold to each purchaser, and the respective price obtained therefor; provided however, that unless separate written demand shall be made as to each consignment or shipment regarding which said statement is desired, prior to sale, it shall be sufficient to set forth in said statement only so many said matters above enumerated as said commission merchant, broker, factor, of consignee may be able to obtain from the books of account kept by him: and said statement shall not be required in case of cash sale where the amount of the transaction is less than fifty dollars. Any person violating the provisions of this section is guilty of a misdemeanor.  (Added by stats. 1909, c 706, p. 1081, Section, 1.)

Seeing Color in the Desert - International Artist Magazine

My article Seeing Color in the Desert (originally posted on has been reprinted in the August/September 2014 issue of International Artist magazine. It originally started with notes from my sketchbook about what I was observing while out painting, and what to do about certain problems that color posed or provided a solution to.

102nd Annual Gold Medal Exhibition

I've just learned that the painting shown here will be included in the California Art Club's 102nd Annual Gold Medal Juried Exhibition in June, held this year at USC's Fisher Museum of Art. For me this painting is personally important as it contains my deep affection for the wild open spaces of the desert, but it was also contains artistic growth for me, pushing myself to paint new things I'm seeing, such as the subtleties of dusk and other areas of visual perception that can sometimes take on an abstract quality but are nonetheless made more "real" solely by context. In other words, our perception of the world is often abstract, but certain things ground that perception and help us understand it.

I'm also honored to have been recently elected to Signature Artist Member of the CAC.

Amidst the Slowness, 24" x 28", © Eric Merrell

Amidst the Slowness, 24" x 28", © Eric Merrell

The Decline of American Monuments and Memorials

The Decline of American Monuments and Memorials

Copyright © 2012 Hillsdale College. Reprinted by permission from Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College.

THIS HAS BEEN an extraordinary year for American monuments. The memorial at Ground Zero opened last September in New York. One month later came the dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial here in Washington, and soon to come to Washington—or perhaps not—is the memorial to President Eisenhower, which is to be a collaboration between architect Frank Gehry and sculptor Charles Ray. Each of these has been the subject of furious controversy, especially those in Washington.

The King Memorial was criticized for engaging a sculptor from Communist China, who saw to it that Chinese rather than American granite was used for the structure—which accounts for its “Made in China” inscription. Even worse, the memorial managed to misquote the great man: Not only did he not say, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness,” but his actual words were a hypothetical statement put in someone else’s mouth. Worse still is the demeanor and expression of the sculpture. King was above all an orator, and in photographs he is invariably open in stance, speaking, gesturing, demonstrating, with his energy directed outward. Yet in the monument he is depicted with arms folded, utterly detached. Instead of inspiring warmth, there is the infinite aloofness of an idol.

The proposed Eisenhower Monument has been criticized on opposite grounds. Instead of making its subject a 30-foot effigy, it turns him into a diminutive country boy. In an outdoor public space that is part formal civic plaza and part wooden urban park, columns in the background will support a wire mesh screen depicting images of the Kansas prairie of Eisenhower’s childhood. And at the center will be the sculpture of Eisenhower as a dreamy country boy “looking out onto his future achievements”—an unconventional depiction, given that there were millions of dreamy country boys and only one Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe in World War Two.

As different as the King and Eisenhower memorials are, the public’s dismay in each instance has the same cause: These aren’t the men we knew. It is not easy, of course, to make a succinct statement in sculptural form of the essence of a man’s life. It is something American art has always struggled with, especially in our chronic divided loyalty between realism and idealism. But this is the least of the problems with the Eisenhower and King memorials. They fail fundamentally as monuments, not because they misunderstand the nature of their subjects, but because they misunderstand what a monument is, or should be.

As traditionally understood, a monument is the expression of a single powerful idea in a single emphatic form, in colossal scale and in permanent materials, made to serve civic life. (Materials and size distinguish monuments from memorials, of which monuments are a subset.) But I suspect that if Frank Gehry were asked to define a monument, he would say something to the effect that a monument is not a thing but a process—an open-ended conversation in which various constituencies bring different interpretations to different forms. I have heard versions of this definition for decades. And it is simply not good enough.

* * *
The spontaneous roadside memorials that mark the site of fatal traffic accidents are a relatively new phenomenon. As physical objects they are ephemera, but as a mass cultural phenomenon they are quite extraordinary, and they testify to a deep human need for memorials. It is a new form of folk art, and it is extremely conventionalized in its expression. For one thing, its repertoire of forms and materials is very narrow: crosses, flowers, hand-painted signs, and heartbreakingly, in the case of a child, stuffed animals. There is very little else, and no striving for originality. Their creators look for widely understood symbols, and they yearn for resolution and closure; they certainly do not aspire to an open-ended process.

In a way, these anonymous roadside sculptors understand what many contemporary artists do not—that monuments, because they are public art forms, must be legible. And this requires a great degree of convention. Thus most traditional monuments are paraphrases of a few ancient types: the triumphal arch, the temple, the colossal column, and the obelisk. Since the 1930s, it has been fashionable to disparage this as architectural grave-robbing, and to argue that we should create our own forms. But these forms are timeless, not simply ancient. After all, the arch is nothing more than a space of passage, made monumental; an obelisk or column is the exclamation point raised above a sacred spot; and a temple is a tabernacle, the sacred tent raised over an altar. These ideas are permanent, and it is not surprising that the one successful work of contemporary public art, the Vietnam Memorial, took its form from one of the most ancient—the mural shrine, the wailing wall.

It is because of their ability to transcend time by connecting to primal human activities—passage, gathering, shelter—that the best monuments never look dated. John Russell Pope’s Jefferson Memorial does not make us think of 1940, but of Jefferson. It does this with its shape: To commemorate the author of the Declaration of Independence, Pope chose the most perfect of all forms—the sphere, a physical manifestation of the clarity of Jefferson’s mind. How different is the Lincoln Memorial, a foursquare citadel; here the theme is heroic fortitude—a cincture of closely spaced columns, huddled together about the windowless central shrine, expressing endurance. Different again is the monument to George Washington, a vehement founding gesture, a single bold mark against the sky. For this, the model was that greatest of architectural point-markers, the Egyptian obelisk.

Although Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial was roundly condemned for its radical innovations—the use of black granite rather than white marble, the stress on a void rather than a positive presence, the violent scar it seemed to make on the earth—it nonetheless presented the profoundly traditional image of a stone tablet inscribed with the names of the dead. Perhaps Lin’s most poetic gesture was how she solved the problem of how to list some 58,000 names. It was determined that they should appear in order of the date of death rather than alphabetically, but she did not simply start at one end in 1959 and continue on to 1975; instead she began and ended the timeline in the center, at the vertex, so that the name of the last to die would touch the name of the first. Here she gave the monument a point of resolution, the point where things begin and end, transforming the linear timeline into something cyclical and regenerative, thus making its central point a kind of altar.

Not long ago it was fashionable to sneer at these things. Frank Lloyd Wright found the Jefferson Memorial preposterous for its archaic expression. But true monumentality has little to do with style and everything to do with simplicity and grandeur of expression. Rodin, asked to define sculpture, supposedly said that it is what results when you roll a statue down the steps—that is, when everything extraneous breaks off. The word for a style of extremely laconic expression is “lapidary,” which comes from the Latin word lapis, or stone. This was the Roman term for the verbal compression necessary when one is carving an inscription in stone. And like the inscriptions they bear, the best of monuments are lapidary: They show a splendid economy of expression in saying one thing, and saying it monumentally.

A structure that offers a single great lesson is a monument; one that offers many facts and anecdotes is a school or museum. And when it offers too many, it becomes preachy, as happened with the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington. Designed by Lawrence Halprin, it provides a sequence of four outdoor rooms, representing FDR’s four terms. Each presents a visual tableau, lavishly outfitted with bronze statues, relief sculptures, and carved inscriptions. For example, the first term is dramatized with a vignette of a Depression-era breadline, and the second with a vignette of an American listening to one of Roosevelt’s fireside chats. Throughout the memorial runs an insistent literalism, with nothing rendered abstractly or symbolically. It is a kind of cross-pollination of a diorama with a Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. Even FDR’s dog Fala is pantingly immortalized in bronze.

During the design process, anti-smoking groups succeeded in eliminating Roosevelt’s ubiquitous cigarette holder. Evidently Halprin and his collaborators did not recognize that Roosevelt’s cigarette holder was not the sign of a lamentable addiction, but the president’s most effective visual prop. He clenched it in his teeth with his jaw thrust forward so that it pointed upwards jauntily, to create an image of buoyant and unshakeable optimism. At the same time, pressure from activist groups for the disabled ensured that FDR would be depicted as wheelchair-bound and handicapped with polio—a fact he carefully suppressed in all public appearances. So the element he flaunted was eliminated, the element he concealed was stressed, and the rakish and jaunty cavalier was transformed into a differently-abled and rather prim non-smoker. I can’t help but think that Roosevelt himself was much more gifted in creating inspiring visual imagery than the makers of his monument.

Monuments and memorials today are discursive, sentimental, addicted to narrative literalism, and asking to be judged on good intentions rather than visual coherence. This change began, ironically, with a critique of the overwrought memorials of the Victorian era. In reaction, the first generation of modern architects decided that we needed an entirely different vocabulary of monuments. So when modernism went about dislodging the structures of traditional society, culture, religion, and the political and social order, it also began dispensing with the arches and columns that paid tribute to that order. This was not easy, however, because modernism was concerned with the future and monuments are retrospective.

One possibility for those rejecting traditional monuments was to eschew technology and turn to the earth itself. The movement known as Earth Art came of age in the late 1960s, and the Vietnam Memorial arose from it, shaping the earth through mounds and embankments. But as great as that memorial was, it was to have a strange effect on the building of subsequent monuments—and not at all the effect one might have expected. Because of the furious reception of Maya Lin’s design, now forgotten because of the memorial’s ultimate success, a figural sculpture was added at the last minute—the sculpture known as “Fighting Men” by the late Frederick Hart. It depicts a trio of combat infantrymen returning from patrol, grim, weary, and drenched to the skin. If your taste is for realistic figural sculpture, Hart’s are the best.

But then something curious happened. Hart made a point of depicting a black, a white, and a Hispanic, but not a female soldier. So shortly thereafter, plans were made for yet a third memorial, this time to honor the women who died in Vietnam. The sculptor, Glenna Goodacre, skillfully paraphrased the Pieta—the wounded soldier reposes like the dead Christ on the nurse’s lap, and in place of the billowing skirts of Michelangelo’s Madonna there is a pyramid of sandbags. But there is a problem in the math: Hart’s three soldiers represent some 58,000 dead men, while Goodacre’s three soldiers represent the seven women who died. We are approaching the point, that is, where we are not dealing in symbolism but literalism—a straight one-to-one representation. And this, regrettably, is the ultimate lesson of the Vietnam Memorial. While America’s most progressive artists openly mocked Hart’s “Fighting Men” for its backward-looking realism, when it came time to propose their own monuments, fashionable designers preferred easygoing literalism to the sublime abstraction of Maya Lin.

Consider the Korean War Veterans Memorial, authorized by Congress in 1988 and designed by Frank Gaylord. Here too the subject is a platoon on patrol, in this case 19 bronze soldiers trudging heavily uphill. It was originally intended to depict not 19 but 38 soldiers—the reference being to the 38th Parallel along which the war pivoted. In the end the number was halved, presumably for budget reasons, with the explanation that it would be doubled by the reflecting mirror: 19 x 2 = 38. Here is an utter misunderstanding of the means and ends of allegory. Normally, allegory uses interlocking symbols to comment on the things we care about—truth, honor, sacrifice. Here it is inverted: Something that really matters, human lives, are being used to represent an accident of military geography, the 38th Parallel.

Why is it that the language of allegory, once generally understood by our culture as a whole, has been banished from our nation’s sacred sites so completely that one needs to spot naïve roadside memorials to find unambiguous statements of grief and love? I believe it has to do with the conviction that became widespread in the 1960s, that we do not need formal conventions, but rather authenticity and sincerity—that we do not need etiquette, but rather honesty. The mantra of that era, “Tell it like it is,” encouraged us to speak from the heart, to improvise. And if the improvisation faltered, as improvisations often do, then stumbling inarticulateness could be taken as a badge of sincerity.

The problem, as Emily Post knows, is that there are situations too serious to trust to improvisation. There are moments when a convention is required and cannot be improved on: the polite inquiry, “How are you?”, the statement of congratulation, “I wish you the best,” the statement of condolence, “I am sorry for your loss.” These are not trite platitudes, but social obligations that are ritual actions. Social interaction requires social conventions. People who do not use conventional sayings, such as “I am sorry for your loss,” run the danger of saying something inappropriate: “Well, at least he’s out of his misery,” or “My uncle had the same form of tumor,” or “Bummer.” If you trust to your own originality, all you can be sure of is that whatever inappropriate notion is bobbing along at the surface of your unconscious will be blurted out.

As it is with social etiquette, so it is with memorials. An artist who sweeps away the traditional conventions for dealing with the great truths of life, death, and sacrifice, can only shuffle about in the cupboard of his own store of mental images. Such was the fate of Eric Fischl, the first artist who tried to make monumental art out of 9/11—a colossal bronze that he called “Falling Woman.” On 9/11, the most agonizing images were those of the trapped workers in the towers, their backs to the inferno, who leapt to their deaths. But unlike the Vietnam Memorial—which succeeds because it says, in the simplest terms possible, “I am sorry for your loss”—“Falling Woman” trusted to improvisation. Rather than “I am sorry for your loss,” it says, “I cannot get this out of my mind.” Ultimately it is not public art at all, but private indulgence.

In the end, the Ground Zero Memorial was not as bad as that but not as good as it should have been. The key decision was to maintain the footprints of the vanished towers, which means that its dominant gesture is the collapse of the buildings and not the lives within. If it has something of the laconic restraint of the Vietnam Memorial, this is to be expected, as Maya Lin played a prominent role on the jury. An urban version of her landscape memorial, it has the same sense of void and absence, the same minimalism and austerity. In one respect, though, it fails to achieve the spatial resolution of the Vietnam Memorial. At the latter the names are in order of death, and have a kind of implacable sad rhythm. Obviously this could not be done at Ground Zero, so the names there are placed according to a random computer-generated sequence. Let me propose a rule—in a real monument, there must be nothing random or computer-generated.

* * *
Returning to the monuments that have been so controversial in Washington recently, the Eisenhower project is scarcely a memorial, let alone a monument. Its principal object, the sculpture of Eisenhower as a farm boy, is far smaller than the colossal backdrops that surround him. It will be these images, abstract depictions of the Kansas countryside and photographic images of Eisenhower’s life, which provide the dominant visual note. Lost and adrift somewhere in this theme park of billboards and fragmented colonnades is Eisenhower himself, diminished and bewildered. To ask one obvious question: What does this have to say about the guiding spirit of D-Day? Clearly Gehry was ill at ease with the martial subject matter, which is why his central image shows Eisenhower “looking out over his future achievements” and doesn’t spell out to future generations of Americans what those achievements were.

As for the King Memorial, the most common charge is that it recalls the despotic sculpture of Leninist-Maoist regimes, with their avuncular but stern “dear leaders.” The sculptor has spent his entire life in such a culture, and it is to be expected that his design would be accused of being a surrogate Chairman Mao image. And to be sure, there is something imperious and implacable about the face of King, a kind of lithic ruthlessness. It certainly seems fiercer than that of our other national martyr to civil rights, Abraham Lincoln. But I would propose that the difference is not so much between American and Chinese character and ideas, although those are at play, but between granite and marble. King is carved out of the former, a dense stone with a crystalline structure that is carved with the greatest of difficulty, forcing a language of sharp lines, flat planes, and generalized roundness. The marble from which Lincoln is carved is far more supple, permitting softer modeling. When one looks at King, with double lines delineating eyes, lips, and nose, one realizes this is the most primal sculptural language of all, that of ancient Egypt.

But there is a far greater problem with the King Memorial. Its overall conception was inspired by a line from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which promises that together we will build “out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” So we see depicted a Mountain of Despair and a Stone of Hope. The whole ensemble is a kind of visual diagram of King’s metaphor, with the Stone of Hope moved forward as neatly as a pawn advancing on a chessboard. In other words, just as the Korean War Veterans Memorial reduced its human figures to symbols of the 38th Parallel, here King is reduced to an illustration of his wordplay. A figure of speech is beautiful because it calls to mind a mental picture; but to build a scale model of a word picture is to do it violence, and to render laughable in reality what is beautiful in the imagination.

The King Memorial runs perilously close to being not a monument at all, but a book illustration—the visual diagram of ideas generated elsewhere. But it is a good index of where we stand today when it comes to the building of monuments. Allegory requires an imaginative act, and is literary, whereas our culture is uncomfortable with figurative language. This began around 1977, the moment the language censors began to attack phrases like “Man does not live on bread alone,” asking “What about women?” A painful literalism set in, which is hostile to figurative language in speech and to abstract allegory in art. Nowadays we tend to think literally rather than literarily, which explains why Frederick Hart had to portray the American military experience in Vietnam by means of three men of three distinct races—and why a women’s memorial was subsequently added. The fear of leaving someone or something out is hostile to the allegorical impulse, which seeks not to itemize but to generalize, and to speak not specific truths but great truths. It is not surprising that a culture ill at ease with the notion of absolute truth would find it very difficult to make monuments that show urgency and conviction.

What can we do about this? First, we can recognize that it is possible to make a convincing monument with the means of modern architecture. Eero Saarinen showed that it could be done with his Gateway Arch at St. Louis: an exquisite portal that opens to the west, it is our version of a Roman triumphal arch. It is abstract, but its visual logic is direct and persuasive, showing that modern materials and forms are not incapable of suggesting timeless ideas. Second, we can recognize that it is not too late. Just because a world-famous architect has submitted a design does not oblige us to build it. Third, we can remember that greatness is possible. For more than a century and a half, we built monuments with spectacular success. We have only been building them badly for a generation. I look at these recent designs, which are perhaps an honest reflection of our divided and uncertain culture, and can’t help but think we can do better once more.

MICHAEL J. LEWIS, the Faison-Pierson-Stoddard Professor of Art at Williams College, has taught American art and architecture at Williams since 1993. After receiving his B.A. from Haverford College in 1980 and two years at the University of Hannover in Germany, he received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1989. He has also taught at Bryn Mawr College, McGill University in Montreal, and the University of Natal in South Africa. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Commentary, and The New Criterion, and his books include The Gothic Revival and American Art and Architecture.

Los Angeles Fine Art Show

Morris Reservoir Shoreline, San Gabriel Mountains, 12" x 12", Oil on panel, © Eric Merrell

The 17th Annual Los Angeles Fine Art Show opens up tomorrow, January 18th, and runs through January 22nd. Two pieces of mine will be there: a new painting, "Morris Reservoir Shoreline, San Gabriel Mountains" will be in the California Art Club's booth, and "Commanding View, San Gabriel Mountains" will be at American Legacy Fine Art's booth.

January 18-22, 2012 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, West Hall B

Wednesday, January 18th -Collector & Press Preview: 5pm to 6pm -Patron Reception: 6pm to 7pm -Opening Night Premiere Party: 7pm to 10pm

General Show Dates: January 19-22nd -Thursday, January 19th: 11am to 7pm -Friday, January 20th: 11am to 7pm -Saturday, January 21st : 11am to 7pm -Sunday, January 22nd: 11am to 5pm

Commanding View, San Gabriel Mountains, 26" x 24", Oil on canvas mounted on panel, © Eric Merrell

On The Importance of Writers

I just returned from my honeymoon in France with my beautiful wife Ramona. One of the things that struck me on our travels there was a small exhibition we saw at the Musée Rodin in Paris, titled Rien Que Vous et Moi ("Nothing Except You and Me"). It focused on the friendship between the great sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) and the great painter Claude Monet (1840-1926). (Rodin was born on November 12, 1840, two days before Monet.)

One of the interesting points the exhibit made was the boost given to the artists by two of the most prominent French art critics of the time, Gustave Geffroy (1855-1926) and Octave Mirbeau (1848-1917). Geffroy and Mirbeau both wrote extensively about the two artists and were credited with introducing Monet and Rodin to each other - resulting in a lifelong friendship between the artists, exchanges of artwork ("Belle-Ile," above, was given by Monet to Rodin and is now the collection of the Rodin Museum), and numerous letters between Rodin and Monet. The critics were also responsible for introducing the artists to the renowned Georges Petit Gallery in Paris, where they presented a two-man show in 1889.

I thought this really highlighted the importance of writers to an artist's career. What we as artists really need is not exposure en masse but better, well-thought out and carefully selected exposure. With the advent of the internet, blogs, etc., everyone can now have their say - so it takes a skilled writer with something to say - writing about something worth hearing about - to cut through the din. Cheers to all those out there doing that.

The grounds at the musée have Rodin's monumental works interspersed throughout; also, one room is dedicated to the work of Camille Claudel (1864-1943), probably Rodin's greatest student (with whom he also had a stormy relationship). Did you know that Rainier Maria Rilke (1875-1926), the great German poet and writer, worked in another room as Rodin's secretary for a period?!? The Musée Rodin is definitely worth a visit on your next trip to the City of Lights.

Egeli Gallery

Shaped by the Sea (Provincetown Dunes), 12" x 16", Oil on panel, © Eric Merrell

I'm pleased to announce a new gallery I'll be exhibiting with, Egeli Gallery in Provincetown, MA. They've got a great roster of artists in the gallery who have a deep interest in working with color, so that's exciting for me to be a part of. The Egeli family has a great artistic tradition that covers at least three generations of artists, and more than one generation studied with Henry Hensche, a noted artist of Provincetown and student of Charles Hawthorne.

Egeli Gallery opens April 25 for the summer season on the Cape, and you can visit them at 382 Commercial Street, Provincetown, MA 02657, 508/487-0044.

Out Now: California Light book

Now available: "California Light: A Century of Landscapes," by Jean Stern and Molly Siple (published by Skira Rizzoli, NYC). Though you can buy it on Amazon (for slightly less), if you get your copy through the California Art Club for a few dollars more, those extra dollars will greatly help the non-profit club continue to organize great exhibitions, lectures and paint-outs. There is also a very limited number of copies signed by all of the authors - this is available exclusively through the CAC. This beautiful coffee-table sized book (276 p., full color) features historic and contemporary members' artwork, as well as the history of the first 100 years of the club. Authored by Jean Stern, Director of the Irvine Museum, and Molly Siple, a frequent author on California art. As the Club Historian, I wrote the brief chronology of the club that was also included (Reducing 100 years' worth of history to fit on two pages is incredibly hard - here is the expanded version if you're interested.)

Videos: C.U. and P-Town cool videos to bring to your attention: The one is from the Classical Underground concert last October that featured paintings by myself and two friends, Logan Hagege and Glenn Dean. (you can see them in the background). This violinist, Moni Simeonov, is one of my favorite performers there. This is a video of the painting trip to Provincetown last October, created by Jon Goward (for some reason the embed feature wasn't working on this video so I just put in a link above). Always interesting to hear the different perspectives that everyone brings, plus, look for the comedy as the credits roll. It’s playing at the Cape Cod Museum of Art and Addison Art Gallery for the Creative Convergence exhibition(s) that was a result of the trip, and is currently on view through February 28, 2011.

Painting Workshops

I'm currently teaching ongoing Saturday morning workshops, usually in the San Gabriel Valley area (with some excursions to other areas nearby). You're welcome to join us from 9 a.m. - 1 p.m. Each four hour session is $100. Let me know when you can paint with us and I'll get you the location where we'll be that weekend.

As seen in my February 2011 eNewsletter. To make sure you receive the eNewsletter with the latest info, send me an email.

Featured Artwork

Piru Farm, Santa Paula Valley, 12" x 16", Oil on panel, © Eric Merrell

As featured in my February 2011 eNewsletter - click the image for a larger version. To make sure you receive the eNewsletter with the latest info, send me an email.

This was painted on location in the Santa Paula Valley just north of Los Angeles. Still very rural, it's packed with miles of orange and avocado groves reminiscent of Old California. Chickens roam about freely, fresh produce and fruit stands dot the highway as it winds west towards the Pacific. I've tried to get a sense of the crisp, clean and healthy sense of this life in this valley during winter. I've always felt that if I wasn't painting, I'd be involved somehow with agriculture. Both of my parents work in this field (heh): my dad in vegetable and flower seeds, and I grew up running around in my mom's vegetable gardens and fruit trees, so I've always loved working in the yard.

Provençe Workshop

Though unfortunately I can't be there, I wanted to pass on the word about a painting workshop that my good friends Jim Smyth and Brigitte Curt of the California Academy of Painters will be teaching this summer in Provençe, France, from July 7 - 21, 2011. More info here. Jim was one of my first painting instructors way back during my high school years and got me working in oil.

Painting by Jim Smyth

It will be a small workshop, limited to 9 students. Jim and Brigitte have been teaching this summer workshop in Provence for many years now, so they know the area well and you know it will definitely be an unforgettable artistic experience. Check out the link above for more info, photos, and to sign up. It's not hard to come up with an excuse to go paint in France!

Sign up for the eNewsletter

I've been updating a few images on the blog and website, check them out and see what you think. More new work to come shortly, check back soon -

Speaking of new work, to stay in touch with everyone and let you know what I'm up to, I've been putting together eNewsletters - send an email to with your name and I'll add you to my list - be the first to hear about those new paintings, upcoming workshops, exhibitions and more.

Back to Back: An Art Lecture and Showcase

I'll be giving a lecture this coming Sunday in Pasadena on the history of the California Art Club, specifically the 1940s. That decade was an exciting and turbulent period for the organization - it found itself squarely in the midst of the red-hot controversy over modern art in Los Angeles, contributed locally to the war efforts, and lost its beloved clubhouse. I'll share insights on the club's inner workings as well as how they fit into the changing national landscape of art and the theater of World War II.

"In the Trenches: The California Art Club during the 1940s" Sunday, October 24, 2010, 1:00 - 3:00 p.m.

$10 CAC Members/$15 Non-members

The Historic Blinn House at the Women's City Club of Pasadena 160 North Oakland Avenue Pasadena, CA 91101 626/796-0560 | Directions


Evening in the Foothills, 16" x 20", Oil, © Glenn Dean

Shadows on the Mountain, 30" x 40", Oil, © Logan Hagege

Spaceship Landing (The Salton Sea), 30" x 30", Oil on canvas mounted on panel, © Eric Merrell

Alexey Steele's Classical Underground, a collection of world-class musicians and artists performing in an intimate studio setting in Carson, CA, has gained quite a following since its inception only a few years back. From the beginning, Classical Underground has featured contemporary paintings along with amazing classical performances unlike anything you'll find elsewhere.

The next concert on the evening of Monday, October 25, 2010 will feature work by Glenn Dean, Logan Hagege and myself, These events have limited seating and sell out quickly, so you'll need to purchase your tickets soon after they go on sale. You can find more info (and buy tickets) on the Classical Underground blog.

Upcoming Workshops, Fall 2010

(L) At the King Gillette Ranch, Calabasas, 12" x 16", Oil on panel, © Eric Merrell (R) Still Life with Lemons and Green Bowl, 16" x 20", Oil on canvasboard, © Eric Merrell

I will be doing a few workshops in the next few months, would love to have you join us.

The first will be a 2-day workshop on (Sat/Sun) September 18-19, 2010, 9:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.  Saturday we will be working from still life setups outdoors at my studio, and on Sunday we'll be painting on location (location TBD). Cost: $300 (email me for payment options and more info).

The second workshop is scheduled for another Sat/Sun, October 16-17, 2010. This one is being set up by LAAFA, so you can contact them to register: Visit their website or call them at 818/708-9232. This landscape workshop (locations TBD) will also go from 9:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. and cost $300. Both of these workshops are limited to ten students and are on a first-come first-served basis.

I'm planning a workshop out in Joshua Tree National Park at some point in the near future (in the winter or spring, of course). There are lots of great places to stay out there. This workshop would probably be limited to 8-10 students. Leave a comment if you'd be interested in this - you've got to see and paint the California desert if you haven't yet. (For some paintings of the desert in and around Joshua Tree, check out work from my solo exhibit at The Forbes Gallery in New York, ongoing until Sept. 25, 2010.)

An American Paradox

An American Paradox (found here)

A Country That Loves Art, Not Artists In a survey of attitudes toward artists in the U.S. a vast majority of Americans, 96%, said they were greatly inspired by various kinds of art and highly value art in their lives and communities. But the data suggests a strange paradox.

While Americans value art, the end product, they do not value what artists do. Only 27% of respondents believe that artists contribute "a lot" to the good of society.

Further interview data from the study reflects a strong sentiment in the cultural community that society does not value art making as legitimate work worthy of compensation. Many perceive the making of art as a frivolous or recreational pursuit.

USA hopes to help close the gap between the love of art and the ambivalence toward artists in society.

Other insights further illuminate the depth of the paradox: • A majority of parents think that teaching the arts is as important as reading, math, science, history, and geography. • 95% believe that the arts are important in preparing children for the future. • In the face of a changing global economy, economists increasingly emphasize that the United States will have to rely on innovation, ingenuity, creativity, and analysis for its competitive edge—the very skills that can be enhanced by engagement with the arts.

As author Daniel Pink posits in his book A Whole New Mind—Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, we have moved beyond the Information Age and into the Conceptual Age. "In short, we've progressed from a society of farmers to a society of knowledge workers. And now to a society of creators and empathizers, of pattern recognizers and meaning makers. . . . We've moved from an economy based on people's backs to an economy built on people's left brains to what is emerging today: an economy and society built more and more on people's right brains. . . . aptitudes so often disdained and dismissed—artistry, empathy, taking the long view, pursuing the transcendent—will increasingly determine who soars and who stumbles. It's a dizzying—but ultimately inspiring—change."

Statistics referenced above provided by Urban Institute, Investing in Creativity: A Study of the Support Structure for U.S. Artists (2003), and Rand Research in the Arts, Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate about the Benefits of the Arts (2004)


Twin Mystery To many people artists seem / undisciplined and lawless. / Such laziness, with such great gifts, / seems little short of crime. / One mystery is how they make / the things they make so flawless; / another, what they're doing with / their energy and time.

-Piet Hein, poet and scientist (1905-1996)