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Beginning Where You Can by Brett Busang

by Brett Busang on 6/30/2006

Today's guest author, Brett Busang, is an independent artist, curator, and, perhaps somewhat jaundiced observer of the people and places we most identify with the art industry: museums, galleries (and the people who run them); the critics, the press, and the taste-makers generally; and, of course, the artists themselves, good, bad, or indifferent.  Expect to hear his version of the unvarnished truth in all its maddening complexity and fascinating paradox.  Don't expect to be soothed, lulled, or vindicated necessarily - though he's a pretty normal fellow in many ways.  Like the average person, he likes sunsets, the birthing of dogs and kittens, and 20-year reunions (just so long as they're not his.)  He simply means to opposed injustice, elitism (in the degraded, populist sense of that word) cant, balderdash, and cowardice.  He will also attempt to enlighten and inform as he either takes the irresponsible and unlettered to task or attempts to elevate the undeservedly obscure.  He will also just write about things that merely interest him: artists dead and living; writers who are particularly visual; baseball and art; outsiders who matter; good art collections nobody knows about; outstanding people everybody should know a lot better.  He means to champion artists who've been denied opportunities; and "out" those who do the denying.  If you think the art world "works" just as it is, this blog is for you (though you won't like it.) But if you happen to think that the art world is a piece of creaky machinery at best - and a mess of obsolete, steam-driven, air-filled, factory-dead tootling at its worst - you'll think you're listening to your own weary little head tick away in the wee hours of the night.

You can learn more about Brett, read other articles he has written and view his artwork at:


Beginning Where You Can by Brett Busang

A lot of collectors plunge into the business head-first and are either totally satisfied (and therefore impervious to critical thought) or they find, as they go along, that they were perhaps a bit too impulsive at the outset and might want to get rid of some of the dreck they purchased when they were green and, well, green.

Why not start modestly, people? There are all sorts of ways, both inexpensive and not, to do that. The most obvious is with student work. In some cases, it's as good, or better, than what is available in galleries. In others, it isn't, but it's cheap and will afford the untutored collector an opportunity to live with artwork that isn't necessarily "commercial." I would, in fact, advise anybody who is seriously interested in starting a collection informed by an evolving personal aesthetic to avoid purchasing artwork in commercial galleries. Put a year's moratorium on it, then come back. The honest collector will find he's already outgrown a lot of it, and will save his or her money.

A more honorable and legitimate way to acquire artwork in one's aesthetic infancy is to go to the print market. And by print, or prints, I don't mean the bastard stuff that's available at "print galleries" in the mall. You'll have to swing a pretty big cat to find an etching or lithograph in these places. And, if you do, it'll be drenched patriotism and/or family values. Or it'll show a cute little place off in a glitzy little corner thronged by pretty people who don't ever have to brush their teeth. If that's what you want, you should probably stop reading now.

There aren't many print galleries in our nation, so the beginning collector must seek them out. They are among us, however, and even a casual search will locate a few. The most famous is, of course, the Old Print Shop in New York City. It's an old, old family business that represents artists both living and dead.  Most the beginning collector won't have heard of - but that's nothing. Most serious printmakers don't make it into the big-box style art history manuals that are force-fed college students. Oh, you'll see a Hopper etching or a Grant Wood print, but, by and large, printmakers aren't even the "artist's" second cousins; they're more like the jailbirds nobody ever talks about. Those dark, dark people who do something bad and get put away. When they do their time, or escape, they lay low for the most part and are rarely seen by civilized persons again.

This black-sheep situation is as disturbing as it is grimly humorous. Many great artists were printmakers. Rembrandt's etchings are among his greatest accomplishments. I'd rate Whistler on his etchings first and his paintings second. Hopper was known exclusively as a printmaker until his breakthrough watercolor exhibit in the 1920's. By that time, he was a middle-aged man.

But back to the Old Print Shop for a moment.

The Old Print Shop is a model of what print shops were, and still ought to be. You can go in there without an appointment and look around for a while.

Its wallspace is crammed with the work of mostly dead artists who had acheived some prominence in their lifetime, but have since slipped off the art historical radar. Martin Lewis is among its most famous alumnus. The Old Print Shop represents his entire estate. It was here that I also first saw Lewis' paintings, sparkling realist/impressionist sketches of American industrial sites and precipitous Japanese landscapes. All you have to do is ask and a salesmen will pull open a drawer and show you original Martin Lewis'. I think Lewis was one of the great interpreters of city life - New York City in particular. His fabulous noctures (though he didn't call them that) teem with exciting mysteries and almost-surreal dangers. No one could re-awaken an already-legendary place as Lewis could. He tapped into the great mood-swings of day and night; ecstasy and despair; longing and frustration; a sense of belonging cross-bred with the certainty of being entirely on one's own. His worried crowds bustle along stately boulevards or ratty old buildings the next generation will claim for its own tawdry designs.  His workmen are sweaty people who have to get the job done - even if it's 3 a.m. and nobody's eaten anything since eleven. His people are not lonely, as Hopper's are, but the place they must negotiate is often oppressively present. Lewis' New York City is both exhausted and majestic; great and piddling; world-class both in its pretensions and excellences and pathetically homely among its wayward and forgotten. I breathe Lewis' air when I see his prints and I value them as I value Thomas Wolfe and Arthur Miller; John Cheever and Dorothy Parker; Charles Addams and E. B. White.

Lewis was Hopper's teacher - which is to say he showed Hopper the rudiments of the craft. Hopper ran with it in his own way, of course. Of the two, however, I prefer Lewis. Hopper would make his greatest mark, I think, as a painter.

In order to best appreciate a place like the Old Print Shop, it would be a good idea to go to the library and check out as many books on printmaking as you can possibly stomach. While I have no particular volume in mind, excellent anthologies of American printmaking have been available since the 30's. Thomas Craven edited a pretty good one back then. Joseph Pennell, a Whistler acolyte, and an excellent printmaker in his own way, put together the very best anthology I know - though it's hard to find. In it, he presented the best of both American and European printmakers up to First World War. It'll probably come up from time to time on

The greatest virtue of prints, aside from their artistic merit, is their price. Many of my friend Bill Murphy's prints can be had for less than $500.00.  This is one of the great deals of the century. Here you can own an original work by a master printer for what a lot of gullible folk pay for a totally worthless, elaborately framed faux-print at a strip mall and think they're getting a good deal. I cannot emphasize the value. . .of this value enough.

[Editor's Note:  You can see Bill Murphy's art work on our web site at ]

The work of Bill's Staten Island and New York City colleagues is similarly affordable. A rich collector could sneak into the exhibit a number of these artists are having right now at the Noble Maritime Museum and scoop up the lot without blinking. And he or she would have the germ of a wonderful print collection.

Privacy issues forbid me to tell you a great deal about a prominent print collector/art dealer who lives in Central Virginia, yet she an independent-minded person "of parts," as they used to say; she loves great prints and printmakers as much as I do and does the best she can to promote them. Her efforts have fallen largely on deaf ears, except in two cases. She is able to market the lively and irreverant imagery of a young man who is still very much rooted in working-class values, but can step back from them and take a hard look at their absurdities and contradictions. His satirical gifts are widely appreciated and he is at least moderately popular.
The more profound artist of the two is also insanely prolific - and indisputably master of the more finicky techniques required of an etcher as well the spontaneous, even gestural, drawing that's needed in drypoint. I wish I could tell you more about these people, but I must respect this collector and dealer's request that I not mention names.

What's behind this apparent indifference to, and lack of feeling for, this kind of work? I can't address all the causes here, but the most obvious, for me, is their rigor. Prints are essentially drawings and drawings are about structure and volume. It's much easier on the eye to appreciate these things in a painting, when they're "clothed" in color. The color makes 'em go down easy, as it were, and keeps them at bay. A print has nowhere to hide - but, then, nor do you, the viewer. To appreciate an excellent print, you must know something about drawing. You must also appreciate how drawing applies to the special process of creating a print on either a plate or stone and pulling it out, by hand, of the press yourself, or in the company of a master printer. It's not easy to learn these things. Nor is it easy to slough off the viewing habits of a lifetime - whereby "easy" color holds the ticket - and become addicted to "first processes" like drawing.

Yet why not? Collecting should not only cater to one's acquisitive instincts, but to one's curiosity, not only about art, but about the issues art must deal with: sin and redemption; the love of place and/or self; the denial (and necessary embrace) of mortality; joy and abundance; the infinite promise of being young and the crabbed compromises of getting older. Prints have always been, for the artist, the most personal of media. A great artist only needs a very small space in which to express a world of regret or triumph. Rembrandt conjures up a mighty cathedral in the space of a foot; he gives you a resurrection, not in a wall-sized canvas, but in something you can put in your pocket if you must. In prints, it is you, the collector, who are on view as well as the printmaker him (or her)self. Prints are not forgiving, but they will bring infinite joy and satisfaction to anybody who takes the time and trouble to wrestle with them a bit. Nothing is worth owning that's gotten with a checkbook only. And with most any print, your checkbook will stay loaded.

In my next installment, I'll talk a bit more about specific printmakers, particularly Americans, and where they might be presently available.

Brett Busang


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