Francis Bacon has long been my least favorite great painter of the twentieth century. ~ Peter Schjeldahl (for The New Yorker)

True, it would seem there’s no defense needed for an artist who has had more than a half-dozen major retrospectives, and whose Three Studies of Lucien Freud holds the record for the most expensive art ever sold at a public auction ($142.4 million). And yet, he, his art, and the tradition it represents, have been under fierce critical attack, when not completely sidelined as irrelevant.

“Three Studies of Lucien Freud” 1969, by Francis Bacon. The triptych sold for over $124,000,000 in auction at Christies, in 2013. Nevertheless the artist’s reputation is plummeting for all the wrong reasons.

First I’ll share my own personal introduction to Bacon, which is entirely germane to my defense of the artist (you’ll see why); next I’ll counter the infamous attack on Bacon by Jed Perl (art critic of The New Republic); then segue into discussing Van Gogh’s influence on Bacon; and finally I’ll answer some of the more nasty criticisms of Jerry Saltz (art critic of New York Magazine). Both critics reviewed Bacon’s posthumous retrospective at the Met of 2009, and their bitter condemnations have been allowed to stand as the last word and final judgement on the artist. It may be that the flurry of bile and invective hurled by the most renowned critics of the time are the reason there have been no subsequent major shows of his work, even though they were wrong.

When I discovered Francis Bacon

I first learned about Bacon over 25 years ago through a drawing teacher in Community College. Strangely, I hadn’t heard of Bacon before that, even though I thought I knew all the big names of modern art from pouring over used art books and magazines I bought from local bookshops, or from ransacking the college library. The reason I hadn’t heard of Bacon at the time, I later realized, was because he didn’t fit into the American, post-war conception of contemporary art, which held Jackson Pollock and Abstract Expressionism as the most important art of the period. British figurative painters were thought of as bygones of an obsolete era. Consequently, Bacon was severely underrepresented in the publications I’d looked at, which were mostly American.

After examining one of my drawings (below), my drawing teacher recommended I look up Bacon. It’s probably because I used charcoal and an eraser to suggest forms, rather than illustrate them with the tip of a sharpened pencil. I wasn’t that optimistic because anyone I hadn’t already discovered I usually found to be second rate, but dutifully went to the library and checked out a book anyway.

“Smoker in the Street”, by me, charcoal on paper, @1986. This is more in an Expressionistic vein than Bacon, but my teacher was right to suspect I’d appreciate the painter.

When I got it home I studied the cover and blew my nose. On the jacket was a portrait of a man in suit and tie, with his head turned to one side as if he’d been firmly slapped. His face was a mess of contusions, painterly arabesques, and wide swatches, one in particular which looked like a stream of nasal discharge exiting his nose with velocity. I found it repugnant, but started flipping through the pages anyway.

I soon became engrossed, and a couple hours later not only was I hooked on Bacon’s art, but I’d come down with a full-blown flu. It may have helped me access his art that I felt as badly as the people in his portraits looked. All his subjects seemed to have the flu. And I thought nobody had captured so well being sick as a dog. It didn’t really matter that Bacon wasn’t expressly trying to do that, or if my thoughts were possibly distorted by the illness. I “got” his art, just as I got The Right of Spring by Igor Stravinsky after someone remarked that it sounded like the soundtrack to the original Planet of the Apes. I just needed a trigger to help me make the imaginative leap. Bacon’s art looked miserable and gorgeous at the same time.

Detail of “Study for Self-Portrait” 1964. Easy to imagine the subject has a flu in paintings like this.

Bacon’s art struck me at the time as about hard reality, the plight of humanity in particular, and modern life. And it was all done in a unique style that spoke as loudly as the subject matter, if not more so. Details were not depicted, but suggested. This was the guy who talked about painting “the brutality of fact”! He was an artist trying to create on the canvas an existential experience.

Each work attempts to recreate the human condition in paint. This was dead serious shit, and it wasn’t pretty. But in increased awareness of reality is beauty, as in to understand nature more deeply is to have a more beautiful understanding. The ugliness in his canvases was a device to release beauty. The images are attempts to wake us up. Reality in them isn’t imitated, but evoked. For these reasons, for years to come, Bacon became not only my favorite living artist, but also the most influential. Among living artists only Bacon combined original imagery and an original style in a way that I found truly compelling, and up to date.

Three Studies for a Crucifixion, 1962. It’s sometimes hard to see this tryptich fresh, but occassionally I can break through over-familiarity and realize again how novel it is.

For a while, my favorite painting by him was Lying Figure (1969) [below]. It seemed to encapsulate not only his vision and style, but to make a coherent statement about the human condition AND art. Looking at this painting was like peering through a peephole into another’s psychological interior space: a feeling that was accentuated by the walls curving around the viewer. Here we saw a person, alone in her room (or a hotel room), lying ungainly on a bed with exposed mattress, a full ashtray, and a dirty rug. A naked body under a naked bulb, corporeal in a plebian, urban, artificial environment.

Lying Figure (1969)

His physical handling of paint had its roots in Impressionism, especially Monet, in that he didn’t use pigment as a transparent medium to imitate the exact appearance of things, such as in trompe l’oeil paintings, but rather as a material which could be manipulated to suggest detail. This is why he said, “I like, you may say, the glitter and colour that comes from the mouth, and I’ve always hoped in a sense to be able to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset.”

Bacon’s style was a fusion of abstraction and representation, attempting to harness the best of both worlds in order to convey the subject more forcefully.

The other day I painted a head of somebody, and what made the sockets of the eyes, the nose, the mouth were, when you analysed them, just forms which had nothing to do with eyes, nose or mouth; but the paint moving from one contour into another made a likeness of this person I was trying to paint. I stopped; I thought for a moment I’d got something much nearer to what I want. Then the next day I tried to take it further and tried to make it more poignant, more near, and I lost the image completely. Because this image is a kind of tightrope walk between what is called figurative painting and abstraction. It will go right out from abstraction, but will really have nothing to do with it. It’s an attempt to bring the figurative thing up on to the nervous system more violently and more poignantly. [Interviews with Francis Bacon by David Sylvester in 1963, 1966 and 1979]]

Center canvas from “Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne (1966)”. His use of pigment to suggest form and likeness is obvious here. [Click to see larger image sized for your screen.]

To put it more directly, Bacon saw the melding of abstraction and figuration as creating a new form that was more potent than either of the others by themselves. But then he also fused content into the blend. And I agree with him. His work has the unbridled beauty of abstraction, which is not limited by how things look, and is therefore free to be as gorgeous as imaginable; and it has all the representation of figuration. Then there is the subject matter as well: an ambitious dissection of quotidian existence. There are people who’ve been shot with a shotgun on beds, people shaving, buggering, looking in the mirror, looking at their shoes, dissolving.

In the self-portrait below, painted when Bacon was 64, you can see some standard characteristics of his portraits, which is what most his mature work were: portraits of himself and his closest friends and lovers. There’s the naked lightbulb, a seated subject, a reflection in a mirror (which always suggests self-awareness /self-reflection), an everyday object which is nevertheless unique (in painting) to the 20th century, and a rounded room like a cul-de-sac that envelopes the viewer in a Baconesque capsule. He chooses as his subject matter the most everyday reality, seen as intensely as possible, and realized as an amalgam on the “tight rope” of abstraction and figuration.

Francis Bacon, “Self Portrait” (1973)

Bacon’s art wasn’t exactly what you might call “cheerful”, and he lacked the basking in happy superficiality that characterized Warhol’s work (who turned shallow commercial illustration into profound high art). But for those looking to swim in the deep end, he offered room to submerge oneself, not unlike the symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich, or the poems of T.S. Eliot. Lying Figure (1969), for one, reminded me of a couple lines from Eliot’s, The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

…When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways…

Some of the similarities include that Bacon used a syringe in the figure’s arm to “pin” it to the flattened picture plane, and the subject is presented under gleaming light, with all her weaknesses and foibles for our closer examination. Elsewhere Bacon made explicit reference to Eliot’s poetry (below).

Triptych Inspired by TS Eliot’s Poem “Sweeney Agonistes,” 1967
Detail of “Sweeney Agonistes,” 1967. Someone in a mirror talking on a phone. It’s almost cinematic.

Clearly Bacon’s subjects weren’t idealized or models of perfection: they were ecstatic celebrations of what is, unfiltered by expectation or adherence to roles. He sought to convey an existential beingness, not a cerebral concept of identity.

The single recommendation to look at Bacon from my drawing teacher was, aside from another drawing teacher later in a state college who dismissed Bacon as a “sick puppy”, the full extent of my exposure to Bacon in art school. [Incidentally, the latter teacher boasted the ability of seeing auras, and taught us how to draw them. That was the last lesson of his class I attended, disgusted with his pretentiousness and ignorance about modern art.] And Bacon was certainly a nonentity in my graduate program, which focused exclusively on the conceptual political art of marginalized groups. His fellow British figurative artists, Frank Auerbach and Lucien Freud, were relegated to the same scant cameo appearances.

Francis Bacon: Lying Figure (1966). Another scintillating painting of a figure sprawled on a mattress in a bare room. The use of textured color fields here is particularly gorgeous, and this painting can easily be appreciated purely for abstract properties.

Jed Perl’s Conservative Attack

A quarter century later and Bacon was being trashed by art critics. In 2009, art critic for “The New Republic“, Jed Perl frothed:

What Bacon produced are not paintings, at least not satisfying ones. They are little more than rectangles of canvas inscribed with noirish graffiti: angst for dummies. Bacon turned his clever little quotations from the masters, old or modern, into the twentieth century’s most august visual claptrap.

I’d happily dismantle where Perl went wrong here, if I could even figure out what his statements had to do with Bacon’s art. All canvases are traditionally “rectangle”, and there’s really nothing in a Bacon painting that remotely resembles graffiti (is he thinking of Basquiat?), or anything else hastily done. Why is it “angst for dummies”? Does Perl have a more intense understanding of anxiety against which Bacon’s own personal turmoil pales in comparison? And what quotations is he prattling on about? Does he mean subject matter or technique? His criticism scarcely makes any sense.

Perl’s main contention is that Bacon is NOT admired for his painting, but rather for being a “romantic outlaw”, which he asserts is a “wrongheaded tradition” in art.:

The trouble with Bacon is that he has not attached himself to a tradition of picture-making but to a tradition of attitudinizing. In this wrongheaded tradition, Caravaggio is admired not because he was a good painter but because he was a bad boy–which is a pretty accurate characterization of the career of Francis Bacon, too.

This claim strikes me as ridiculous. I knew nothing of Bacon’s personal life when I discovered his art. And when I did start reading up on him it was more about his philosophical outlook (existentialist with a vengeance) than his biography. When I later learned about some of the more sordid details of his private history, it wasn’t anything that appealed to me in a way that would make me like someone’s art. If the real Francis Bacon were anything like his film incarnation in “Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998)”, it’s safe to say I admire his paintings in spite of, and not because of his lifestyle and personality. But then I consistently dislike the way film portrays artists – as if in order to make great art one needs to be incompetent in every other aspect of life, especially as regards social skills.

Neither did I know about Caravaggio killing anyone until after I’d studied books of his art. In hindsight, I must have studied the paintings much more than the text to have not have encountered the juicy bit about his murdering someone. More likely, however, considering that I also studied Caravaggio in art history classes, I cared so little about the personal details of his life that they didn’t even signify. What I remembered Caravaggio most for was how three-dimensional his art was.

Supper at Emmaus, 1601, by Caravaggio. Is it possible to only like this painting because the artist once killed someone? It’s as much a visual feast as there is a gustatory one on the table.

Other than their sexual orientation, I don’t see any overlap in the two artists. And I am no more interested in their sexual preferences, or private sex lives, than I am in Andy Warhol’s, Jasper Johns’, Robert Rauschenberg’s, Keith Haring’s, or David Hockney’s. And the same goes for straight artists, or my neighbors. I’d much rather NOT catch them in the act. I am interested in artists because of their art, not their celebrity, and hence their sexuality is little more relevant than anyone else’s. To the degree it IS significant would lie in how it would position them as outsiders, and thus how not being a part of dominant culture might free them from conformity, from being locked into a comprehensive belief system in which their very existence didn’t allow them to belong. And while it might be empowering for the LGBT community to see another of  their own in the pantheon of great artists, that would be undercut if he were besmirched as a sadomasochistic-alcoholic, rotten-to-the-core.

The artist who most reminds me of Bacon is my other favorite, Van Gogh. Vincent suggested faces with impasto paint, and tried to recreate his own existential reality on the canvas. While not being abstract, exactly, Van Gogh’s canvases were so lushly painted, and with such rhythm and pattern, that it’s impossible not to look at them as things in themselves, irrespective of the content. You can’t miss the direction of every painted stroke.

In the painting below, If you look at the figure, and compare it to how Bacon often paints legs and arms, you can see that Van Gogh was a huge influence on him. This is Vincent trying to capture the ecstatic beingness of sowing seeds in an azure illumined field with black crows under a radiant sun.

The Sower, 1888.

And in the painting below you can see the inverse/outside versions of a Baconian environment. You have the single figure obviously made of paint, strong formal horizon delineation, and that shadow that one always sees in Bacon’s paintings as here, something solid. If you just bowed the picture to get the rounded room effect Bacon uses, you could almost imagine it was done by his father painter.

Painter on the Road to Tarascon, August 1888,

If you aren’t convinced that Van Gogh was an enormous influence on Bacon, then you haven’t seen the “covers” Bacon did of Vincent’s paintings. The pieces below are conclusive evidence.



You could say that Bacon was trying to do an art that was a 20th century version of Van Gogh’s painting. And yet Perl nowhere draws this comparison, instead insisting on linking him most closely with Caravaggio. Significantly, neither Saltz nor Schjeldahl acknowledge the art-historical lineage from Van Gogh to Bacon, so far are they adrift from the reality.

Contrary to Perl’s theory, the appeal of Bacon or Caravaggio to me had nothing to do with their personal lives, anymore than I value Van Gogh’s canvases because he cut off a piece of his ear: I found the art to be intrinsically great. Bacon was not at the back of the pack, lagging behind the Abstract Expressionists, who had cleansed their vision of subject matter entirely, as my teachers seemed to think. Rather, he’d learned from them (among others) and incorporated their celebration of color fields, thick brushwork, and textured surfaces into his own art. When I first discovered Bacon, I was able to like him with eyes trained on abstract art (I loved Abstract Expressionism), with its emphasis on paint as a thing, color as a subject, and vigorous brushwork as emotional content. The painting below looks just a bit like someone flung a homunculus at a Rothko, where is settled in and built a nest of bedding.

“Portrait of Henrietta Moraes” 1963.

Perl went on to trivialize and mischaracterize Bacon’s content thusly:

The message is that we are all prisoners, we are all locked in place, we cannot get up from the chair, we cannot walk through the door. In order to underline their inability to flee the isolation cells that Bacon has contrived for his allegedly archetypal figures, the artist sometimes gives one of these freakish victims an appendage that looks like a club foot, or scrambles the head so badly that you wonder if a man could even see his way through the door.

Another conventional art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, made the same mistaken accusation is his own attempt to belittle Bacon’s retrospective, and reputation.

Big or small, the size of a Bacon feels arbitrary. With a few exceptions…they are illustrational: tissues of fiction, or caricature, that complete themselves in literary imagination. Not that there’s anything wrong with illustration.

This rings false. Bacon clearly stated that he wasn’t interested in illustration – as in illustrating a story or scenario such as that the viewer would get a specific message to think about – but rather in using paint in a way that conjures a raw, physical, and ecstatic presence.

The quotes below by Bacon show what his true aim and achievement were, and they were anything but illustration.

Some paint comes across directly onto the nervous system and other paint tells you the story in a long diatribe through the brain. ~ Francis Bacon

An illustrational form tells you through the intelligence immediately what the form is about, whereas a non-illustrational form works first upon sensation and then slowly leaks back into the fact. ~ Francis Bacon

I have to hope that my instincts will do the right thing, because I can’t erase what I have done. And if I drew something first, then my paintings would be illustrations of drawings. ~ Francis Bacon.

The mystery lies in the irrationality by which you make appearance – if it is not irrational, you make illustration. ~ Francis Bacon.

The esteemed art critics would have done well to research what Bacon clearly argued about his own work, rather than focus on picking through the flotsam and jetsam of gossip and rumors for sensationalist, humiliating tidbits with which to decry the artist.

The artificial environments the people inhabit are simply our 20th century urban surroundings, and his depiction of them stands out as unique in forefronting mundane objects of mass production in painting. The backdrops represent the arena in which modern humans exist, and which are an indispensable component of our cosmopolitan identity. Bacon wasn’t saying that we are trapped, and for some unknown, presumably weak and defeatist reason. He was, as best as he could, trying to show how we ARE, and within the artificial mental and physical environments we’ve created for ourselves.

Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror, 1968. Note the flung white paint. His reflection looks like he cut himself shaving, which is very possible because Bacon has a similar painting of a man shaving in a mirror.

What we see in the above painting by Bacon is not a figure that is physically incapable of getting up out of the chair or leaving the room, but rather someone who is under scrutiny, like a bug in a jar, or someone sitting for a portrait. The subject may very well get up, leave the room, and take the tube to work or the pub. This isn’t about stating that humans are hopelessly isolated, but rather a technical device for isolating the human presence. To say it yet another way, Bacon is putting people under a microscope to lay their essence bare, but he is not saying that we live inescapably under glass slides.

Perl crystallizes his inability to fathom Bacon in this ironic little gem:

His blurred or distorted faces and bodies are nothing more than photographs seen in a funhouse mirror. He depends far too much on the fixity of photographs, which he uses to give his paintings a creepy freeze-frame fascination. The photographic image serves as a source of cheap sensation, a defense mechanism, a way of shutting down any feelings that might arise directly from experience.

The paintings below epitomize best what Perl is addressing. They could have come out of a Surrealistic photo booth, and truly are like “freeze frame” instances on a role of film. But do we feel less moved by these images than in other paintings? Do they seem to have less presence?

The first below are three self-portraits of the artist. In each he’s missing half his head, and the inside seems hollowed out. He’s only partly there, as if we were looking not at his flesh, but at his subjective self-reflection. It’s as if he’s looking in a dark, smoky mirror, and only sees what he can conjure of himself with imagination looking back. At the same time that consciousness is recognized as ethereal, and where identity resides, on another level it inhabits an intractably fleshy body irretrievably ensconced in the physical world. Because the painting registers the aging artist’s self-reflection (and as usual, focuses on his existence and mortality) more of that comes through.

20121011012826-BaconSID48917_770x314px francisbacon2

Critics are always saying that the subjects in Bacon’s paintings are only meat. This is a gross parody of existentialism. Bacon, we know, was an athiest, and just because he didn’t believe in an afterlife (he thought people would prefer infinite hell rather than ceasing to exist), doesn’t mean that he thought of people as mere meat! THAT is stupid! How could a painter, immersed in human culture, seriously be thought to believe that people were only meat, including his best friends, his lover, and himself? Bacon may have stressed the “meat” aspect, not as literal meat, but as mortal flesh and bone. People took the message literally. He’s never meant that everything we are is only meat, but that everything we are is only mortal, and vulnerable, and finite because it is so. I’m afraid people took his metaphor of meat literally.

The shadow of dead meat is cast as soon as we are born. I can never look at a chop without thinking of death–that probably sounds very pompous. ~ Francis Bacon

Perl concluded his essay against Bacon with that same misunderstanding of “meat”, and took the bait all too literally.

By the end of the show, museumgoers may feel as if they are in a slaughterhouse, with each painting presented like a carcass hanging on a hook. The Bacon retrospective is the most fashionable slaughterhouse in the world. What we are witnessing is a nihilist blood sport, the hideous spectacle of an artist in the process of eviscerating the art of painting. ~Jed Perl

Meanwhile back in reality we have a painter making a genuine attempt to continue the art of painting in the most central fashion, in a tradition that can be traced easily back to Van Gogh, and using it to convey the human predicament through portraits of himself and friends. Does the portrait below of Lucien Freud really look like just a carcass? Perl doesn’t attempt to explain why whole sections of the bodies and faces evaporate. They are material AND immaterial. Perl only see half of the content, misses the humanity, and then accuses the artist of nihilism.

Portrait of Lucien Freud

People are always evaporating in Bacon’s images, at the same time that they are insistently fleshy. It’s a marriage of opposites that make up the truth. We are not conscious of both sides of our face, or all of our body at any time. It’s as if Bacon paints the part of the body the subject is conscious of at the present. These are not tricks taken from photography to distance the viewer from the subject, but an imaginative attempt to convey the individual’s subjectivity. He tried to capture the essential character of his subject rather than just depicting their likenesses.

I would like my picture to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail leaving its trail of the human presence… as a snail leaves its slime. ~ Francis Bacon

Bacon repeatedly stated that his goal was to convey direct experience, and certainly not to build a barrier to it.

Great art is always a way of concentrating, reinventing what is called fact, what we know of our existence – a reconcentration… tearing away the veils that fact acquires through time. ~ Francis Bacon.

You can’t both squelch the direct experience of art, and try to remove all the veils that obscure existence at the same time. Perl will have to argue that Bacon was wrong about his own objectives, and only succeeded in accomplishing the polar opposite of his stated aim. The reality, however, is that Perl’s inability to see Bacon’s art is due to all the layers of rhetoric and beliefs that cloud his own vision, as well as his preference for also-ran art.

I once received a book of criticism by Jed Perl as a present. I can’t remember if I finished it all or not, but I do remember that what particularly struck me was that the art he liked most was obviously second-rate. After he’d criticized artists with radiant canvases, he lauded mediocre still-lifes flatly painted in uninspiring tones.

Louisa Matthiasdottir, “Still Life with Frying Pan and Red Cabbage” 1979. THIS is what Jed Perl thinks is great art.

The above art by Louisa Matthiasdottir looks like reasonably competent traditional oil painting. I wouldn’t have noticed it as a stand out in an art exhibit at a county fare. Once I saw the art Perl actually liked, I couldn’t take him seriously anymore. Another of his favorites is also only interesting to me in just how uninteresting it is. Below is a work by Leland Bell, which is so conventional that I can’t muster any enthusiasm for it. Are the subjects in these paintings supposed to give us “feelings that might arise directly from experience” where Bacon’s are not? Obviously it’s the opposite. These paintings convey nothing to me of experience: the people and the eggplant don’t show any interiority shining through. There’s nothing there. They are just flat paintings. Decorations.

Ordinary artwork by Leland Bell, another of Perl’s favorites.

In the end, Perl’s assessment of Bacon says more about him than the artist. It’s not that Bacon’s fans worship him because of his “romantic outlaw” lifestyle, but rather that Perl resents him because of it. And while Perl may only see “clap trap” when he looks at a Bacon canvas, that’s a testament to his own incomprehension, and it’s the same thing I see when I look at subatomic physics equations that I don’t understand. Perl is probably not as myopic as my aura-seeing, Bacon-deriding college drawing instructor – I imagine Perl doesn’t accrue superhuman powers to himself – but I have a similar feeling about him, which is that he’s so conservative in his tastes that he’s reactionary, and prefers the ordinary to the extraordinary. [To Perl’s credit, his scathing review of the cloyingly saccharine Koons retrospective in the NY Review of Books made many excellent points, which I agree with wholeheartedly.]

Jerry Saltz’ Ugly Assault

Jerry Saltz, senior art critic and columnist for New York Magazine, similarly was unable to fathom Bacon’s sophisticated paintings, and instead focused on his private life. He opened his review of the Bacon retrospective at the Met in 2009 with a vicious personal assault:

Those who knew the artist—some of them his friends—described him variously as “devil,” “whore,” “one of the world’s leading alcoholics,” “bilious ogre,” “sacred monster,” and “a drunken, faded sodomite swaying nocturnally through the lowest dives and gambling dens of Soho.” Bacon was no kinder: He called himself a “grinding machine” and “rotten to the core.”

It would be difficult to paint a more vile portrait of Bacon. The quotes are out-of-context or literalized, and it would be hard not to be biased against the artist, especially if one were at all judgmental, moralistic, or homophobic. There’s no mention that:

When Bacon died, the critic David Sylvester… described him as ‘the greatest man I’ve known, and the grandest’, and listed his staunch moral virtues: honesty, generosity, courage. [1]

And while we now have an image of the nocturnal Bacon stalking the lowest dives, we don’t imagine him having dinner (and often lunch) almost daily with painter Lucien Freud and his wife, or having at least one warm friendship that lasted decades:

Lucian’s second wife, Caroline Blackwood, laconically noted that she had had dinner with Bacon, ‘nearly every night for more or less the whole of my marriage to Lucian. We also had lunch.’ Lucian himself recalled seeing Bacon at some point virtually every day for a quarter of century. [2]

Bacon and Freud
Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon (photographed by Harry Diamond).

Statz’s overt attempt to portray Bacon as a despicable sadist would have been less hideously ugly had he followed it up with anything other than a complete dismissal of the artist’s work:

For me, Bacon—who may be the only artist sharing a name with one of his main subjects, meat—has always been more of a cartoonist. He’s an illustrator of exaggerated, ultimately empty angst.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen as (ironically) sadistic an attack on an artist. Would that Bacon were alive to have the opportunity to reply on his own behalf.

If there were any question of whether or not Saltz actually was up to the task of appreciating Bacon’s eloquent use of visual language, it’s eliminated in his assertion, “His early accomplishments are undeniable” (implicitly as compared to his later work). This is like saying, “Mozart’s teen’ compositions were his best” or “I like the early Beatles much better than the later stuff”. Bacon’s early work is more accessible because less complex, and it’s a bit crude and clumsy. He hadn’t yet developed his own voice or mastered his craft. His greatest paintings were actually mid-career, even if they were more impenetrable to the visually unstudied or myopic.

Bacon’s still evolving work of the 50’s is what most impressed the critic:

By the fifties, Bacon had hit his stride, painting what he called “figures … [in] moments of crisis … [with] acute awareness of their mortality … of their animal nature”—truths hauntingly self-evident in his large pictures of naked beefy men crouching in transparent cases, making love with or attacking one another; dogs cowering on dark streets; sphinxes; businessmen; and howling monkeys.

bacon monkey
Chimpanzee, 1955. While this is a great painting, Bacon had not yet developed his color palette, and his geometry is more angular and flat.

I agree that Bacon’s work of the 50’s was exceptional, but he hadn’t yet developed the ability to balance strong colors; hadn’t found his core subject matter; and his backgrounds were still comparatively flat and angular. It is Bacon-lite for those like Saltz, who aren’t quite up to the heavier, more demanding, more evolved pieces.

Saltz claims that “Bacon’s formula had grown stagnant by 1965”, yet much of his best work was actually done after that, including the “lying figures” I shared earlier. It really does seem that the more mature work is over Saltz’s head. I do concede, however, that in his late years, Bacon became a bit of a self-parody, though I would say the same of many artists who live to be octogenarians.

Bacon… kept working his theme until it became a gimmick. The calculated pictorial repetitiousness and lack of formal development wear thin. Except for a number of fabulous portrait heads and the astounding Jet of Water—made in 1988, just four years before his death…

If you have to make qualifications for “fabulous” portraits and “astounding” paintings made in his 70’s, can you really say his work “wore thin”? I also disagree about “Jet of Water”, which I find to be rather light, and one of the only Bacon paintings without a figure in it.

“Jet of Water” 1988, Oil on canvas 78 x 58 in. (198 x 147.5 cm). Saltz is most impressed by possibly one of Bacon’s most innocuous works.

It’s just a bit odd, when I constantly hear that artists need a “signature style”, to see someone condemned for sticking with a general theme and mode of representation. Saltz reduced Bacon’s “formula” to a few stylistic devices:

He has no idea what to do with the edges of his paintings. Everything that happens in Bacon’s work happens in the middle of the canvas; at times you don’t have to look anywhere else. The bottoms of his paintings are always the same, too—a receding plane curves up at the sides, like you’re looking through a fish-eye lens or from inside someone’s eye sockets. He neutralized his paintings further by insisting they be framed behind glass.

While there is a nugget of truth in this, most his paintings actually DON’T curve up at the bottom, and he often doesn’t put people in the center of the image. What is the use of saying “all” of his work follows a formula that it clearly doesn’t? See the gallery below for examples of paintings that neither curve up at the bottom nor place the figure in the center, proving Saltz flat out wrong.

And imagine if we applied the same standards to Pollock, Rothko, Monet, or even Van Gogh. Can we forgive Pollock for a career of flung paint evenly spread across a canvas, or Rothko for relying on soft rectangles of color, and then slam Bacon for exhibiting fewer consistencies within a broader range of techniques? Should we write articles about Van Gogh’s addiction to absinthe, whoring, self-mutilation, faux-angst, bad temperament, poor hygiene, and his repetitive use of thick brush strokes arranged in rows and arcs?

Most of the critic’s analysis is not of the art itself, but rather of the man, and it looks as though Saltz’s arm-chair psychiatry is full of contradictions. While he is sure that Bacon’s “angst” is “empty”, he nevertheless brings up experiences in the artist’s life that would produce angst in most anyone besides ironclad strongmen like Saltz himself, or Jed Perl.

On the day before his first Tate retrospective opened, in May 1962, Bacon learned Lacy [his lover] had been found dead, almost surely from drinking.

No, that wouldn’t cause REAL anxiety. Saltz continues:

Less than two years later, Bacon met George Dyer—reportedly when Dyer broke into his studio to rob him. For the next seven years the relationship rocketed up and down, then history repeated itself. On October 25, 1971, the day before Bacon’s retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris opened, Dyer overdosed and died in their Paris hotel room. Bacon, then 61, was again devastated.

Still, nothing there to cause genuine angst.

Saltz’s mean-spirited assault on Bacon and his art contradicts itself and can best be understood by reading between the lines. As much as he wants to destroy Bacon’s reputation as a great artist, his evidence belies his conclusions. If you have to concede paintings that are “fabulous”, “astounding”, or bearing “truths hauntingly self-evident”, than you cannot say that the artist is a “cartoonist”. And if you relate tales of his living in the scarred landscape of the aftermath of WWII, being disowned, whipped, arrested, addicted to alcohol, humiliated in public, and surviving two of his lover’s suicides, you cannot say that his anxiety was “empty”. And if your list of his technical redundancies are broader than most famous modern artists’ arsenals of methods, you cannot accuse him of lacking stylistic breadth or innovation.

I shudder to think of what kind of art yet another conservative critic with underdeveloped visual literacy, and expert credentials, actually likes. Is it going to be more second rate, uninspired milquetoast? Below is the work of Katherine Bernhardt, about whom Saltz wrote, “[she] has been wowing me with her wild-style painting for ten years”.

oh shit this sucks.
Typical painting by Katherine Bernhardt, who Saltz has been “wowed” by for over a decade. Quite possibly some of the suckiest art I’ve ever seen, and the easiest to mimic.

The above painting is just horrible. I mean, if it was a parody of what really terrible art might look like, it would be OK, but this shit is serious. You might think this must be her worst piece. Think again. Below are two more of her masterworks.
The emperor is wearing a DayGlow codpiece. These paintings are so gawd-awful, that you’d have to be years overdue for your cataract surgery to not spray them with vomit.

THIS is what Saltz thinks is the real deal. Bacon is a “cartoonist”, but this is in his top 10 shows of 2013. Anyone who has been admiring this dreck for a decade has abysmal taste in art, and an overriding fondness for pure, unadulterated crap. Though, to give him an out, it may just be that the aging critic was soft on the young, female artist; and perhaps he was terribly flattered that she did a portrait of the photo of him flipping both birds in unison.

Jerry Saltz, and “Jerry Saltz” by Katherine Bernhardt.

OK, She didn’t really paint that. I did. In ten minutes. With whatever paints were at hand. As badly as I could. Right, it doesn’t look EXACTLY like her shit, but, it was my first attempt. Give me another ten minutes and I might be able to make it even worse, which is even better. And you might be thinking that this kind of work is not really representative of everything the critic likes, and other things he likes must be much better. You are right, because it just doesn’t get any worse than Katherine Bernhardt.

Another one of his 10 Best Art Shows of the Year was the work of Eleanor Ray. Her paintings are definitely better, but not particularly daring, original, or anything else.

“Red Bike” 2012, by Eleanor Ray.

They are not bad though, especially if one likes bicycles as much as I do.

“Maroon Bike” 2012 by Eleanor Ray.

While these bikes are charming, I hardly think one could hold them up as among the best work of the year, or hang them in the same room as Bacon. Besides which, the second one was actually done by me (to fulfill an assignment) in my “Intro to Painting” class at Valley College over 20 years ago. This is comparatively safe and easy art. It is also much closer to beginner art, and all the more appealing to an underdeveloped eye.

And as for Peter Schjeldahl, who I haven’t chosen to devote as much time to (partly just to keep this article manageable to write or read), he recently touted bland appropriationist of kitsch and drivel, and fashion bauble manufacturer for the 1%, Jeff Koons, as “the most original…American artist of the past three and a half decades”. The phrase “consider the source” comes to mind. Schjeldahl has a healthy appetite for gilded, insipid tripe. That might be forgivable, if he didn’t display extraordinary blindness in his dislike of Lucien Freud.

I don’t like Francis Bacon or, for that matter, Lucian Freud a whole lot. ~ Peter Schjeldahl

And I am happy to answer the challenge he set down in his review of Freud’s retrospective in 2002:

Enthralling as Freud’s brushwork can be, his art goes numb when viewed from a distance of more than five feet or so—the remove at which paintings become pictures. I defy anyone to recall, as a vivid mental image, a whole composition by Freud, complete with objects and background. ~ Peter Schjeldahl

Below are two of any number of paintings by Lucien Freud which work spectacularly well as pictures, even as mere Jpegs on your monitor.

Lucien Freud 4
“Double Portrait”, by Lucien Freud. 1985
“Large Interior W11 (after Watteau)”, by Lucien Freud, 1983.

One may have an argument (which I have yet to find intelligently articulated) as to why multi-million-dollar, polished chrome replicas of annoying kitsch are the holy grail of contemporary art, or harbor a fashionable if  hollow conviction that representational image-making is hopelessly antiquated, but you can’t deny the beauty of these paintings as pictures. To do so is a perversity of sight and mind, and an exercise in stubborn arbitrariness.

Francis Bacon was a grand painter, who unified figuration and abstraction to forge his own style which he used to address challenging subject matter that reflected the times he lived in. His canvases are among the most visually sophisticated and seductive of the 20th century, and from my perspective more relevant and up to date than the work of the American Abstract Expressionists, who needn’t grapple with subject matter. It’s no coincidence that the critics who pan him have appalling taste in art, and a marked preference for pasty mediocrity. Their attacks on his lifestyle further highlight their conservatism, antagonistic shortsightedness, and failure as critical thinkers for taking the route of the sophomoric logical fallacy of attacking the opponent (artist), rather than his argument (art). In the end, it is a sign of greatness to be denounced by sham critics who lust only after the lackluster. Perl and Saltz hate Bacon because he’s great, while they seek comfort in the spectrum of the second-rate, where their criticism ultimately cozily belongs.

And the bigger problem, beyond the critics’ myopia towards Bacon, and their branding his art with the specific qualities of the territory of their own falling short of truly appreciating it, is the tradition they attack: making original imagery in a unique style. I’ve talked about this at length elsewhere, but in a nutshell, this is an intellectual problem to do with thinking of art as progressing in a linear fashion, in which only the newest developments are seen as worthy of interest (even if they are just newness for newness sake, and suck), and anything that came before becomes irrelevant. Art is not science, and the new does not trump the old. Art is more like music or cuisine. Pizza never is dead. Led Zeppelin is still outstanding today, and so is “The Right of Spring”. The tradition of making new and compelling imagery in a new style that is both personal and reflects the age one lives in never dies, even if critics eye balls rot in their sockets, as their mouths spin rhetoric that doesn’t hold water, or can be proven flat out wrong. It doesn’t die even if the most famous living artists say it’s dead, before they go listen to music, read a novel, or watch a movie that attempts to do the equivalent of the approach they pronounced moribund.

Some artists are continuing the tradition of making new imagery, and Bacon is often an influence on their work (though need not necessarily be, as people will have their own tastes and preferences). One artist who works in the tradition of Bacon and has continued in a new direction, is Andrew Newton, whose work I reviewed here. There are others I’m aware of, and you can look forward to another post featuring them soon.

~ Ends


1. The power and the passion, by Peter Conrad. The Observer, Sunday 10 August 2008

2. Friends, soulmates, rivals: the double life of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, by Martin Gayford. The Spectator, 14 December 2013

Some of my work showing the influence of Bacon featured on the blog so far (there’s more). Some are very old, and some are among my newest. Maybe artists (who possess a solid background in visual literacy) have a better understanding of visual language that do non-artist critics.

See all my new art here.

And if you like my art and art criticism, and would like to see me keep working, please consider making a very small donation. Through Patreon, you can give $1 (or more) per significant new work I produce, and cap it at a maximum of $1 a month. Ah, if only I could amass a few hundred dollars per month this way, I could focus entirely on my art. See how it works here.

Or go directly to my account.

Patreon-accountOr you can make a small, one time donation to help me keep on making art and blogging (and restore my faith in humanity simultaneously).


29 replies on “In Defense of Artist, Francis Bacon

      1. Yup! You are correct. This guy does not need defending! I love his drawings and I love what he does with paint as he creates those twisted faces that look like they came out of a Salvadore Dali painting. Awesome stuff and technique. I only read about half of your criticism. Will finish up tomorrow — Labor Day abd so, day off. Yay!


  1. I’m glad you took the time to defend one of your favorite artists. The above critics were shameless in their attacks, which is interesting because I don’t think they could articulate why they felt so negatively about Bacon. I mean, sure they used fancy words and tried to be clever, but they didn’t say anything.

    For me, Bacon is hard to take, but I’m not visually trained or literate in this way. But I certainly find him far more intriguing that the crap they like! I think people don’t take the time with art anymore. They don’t look at it and allow themselves to move around and see how it makes them feel. For those critics, they had a negative reaction to Bacon’s work, and then made fun of it – just a bunch of school yard bullies.


  2. I never really saw much of his art until now. Personally I am not overly fond of so called art experts who don’t know what real art is. And whomever that Katherine Bernhardt is definitely not an artist. Small children with finger paint can do better then that! Jackson Pollock was not an artist. He was just a sloppy man who got a good publicist! The crap most people nowadays consider art is nothing much of it lacking the necessary intellect behind it to be considered masterful. It is akin to the lackluster thought process of those critics who deem it to be the works of genius. The art world of today suffers the consequences of critics whom shamelessly tout themselves worthy to judge what true art is and to the detriment of artist of today and the future.


    1. RE: Your article “In defense of artist, Francis Bacon”:

      It resonated strongly for me because I was blown away by an exhibit of his work at the Art Institute of Chicago many years ago. I liked, and still like, everything, but was especially impressed by a picture of a parade of elephants across the bottom of a large canvas. The majority of the panel consisted of jungle scenery. It was such a simple subject, and my description of it sounds like a photo from National Geographic. It wasn’t. Some kind of mystic power emanated from that painting which defies translation into words (as does all great art, IMHO).
      What I can describe in words was my excitement by the way Bacon combined strict geometric forms, like the curved wall of “Lying Figure,” and carefully rendered objects, like the lamps hanging from the ceiling, with wildly expressionistic, smeary-painterly, distorted quasi-cubist forms like the figure, and especially the head, of the figure on the peculiar bed. To my naive eyes it was cruel, sarcastic, deliciously shocking, and seemed to convey a message of–je n’est sais quoi–but something. The human condition encapsulated, as you suggest? It spoke to something in me that I hadn’t known was there.
      However, I disagree with your evaluation: “His physical handling of paint had its roots in Impressionism …” I see him more influenced by expressionism. Or maybe expressionistic impressionism or impressionistic expressionism. But who knows? Maybe when it came time to struggle with the figure he just got lazy? Words, words, words . . .
      I enjoy reading your essays, lots to argue with, to agree with, and be informed by. I also like your work. You have quite a dark mind, and I perhaps flatter myself by saying that I share, or at least appreciate, your dark comedic sensibility.
      I will make only one more comment which may anger you and will probably show how out of touch I am with the contemporary art world. I believe it is the business of artists to make art and the business of critics to write criticism. To do both seems schizophrenic to me. Artists make better use of their time by making their art. Most criticism, if it survives at all, ends up in musty tomes hidden away on remote shelving of university libraries. Art is tougher. Even if the critics succeed in panning it almost to death, unless it is physically destroyed it’s hard to hide and someday, maybe someday, somebody will see–really SEE– it.
      But hey, it’s only my opinion, and opinions are like assholes, n’est ce pas? Everybody’s got one.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Richard. I like your descriptions of your reactions to the Bacon you’ve seen. As for Expressionism or Impressionism for Bacon’s “root” in thickly smeared paint, I used his quote about wanting to paint a mouth like Monet painted a haystack or sunset or whatever his example was. Impressionism merely came BEFORE expressionism, but really some of his technique probably goes back to Rembrandt or Titian. And clearly Post-Impressionism, especially Van Gogh was a huge influence, though critics don’t even tough that because they can’t fit it in their narrative of Bacon as the night prowler of seedy bars and whatnot who only works from photographs. Another case, which I made in the article is the influence of American Abstract Expressionists, which I think he was not impressed by in particular (he said Pollock looked like “old lace” and asked if someone was going to paint abstractly why didn’t they use gorgeous colors). I used Impressionism because of it’s time in history and the use of thicker paint, applied comparatively quickly, and use to suggest rather than illustrated subject matter, which is a very critical difference. I learned to illustrate things but have come to love suggesting them to the point where illustration seems tedious, but I may still do it sometimes.

        You wrote: “I believe it is the business of artists to make art and the business of critics to write criticism.”

        Artists as critics? Writers as critics? Musicians as critics? There are probably a lot of them, and notable ones, such as Mathew Collings. Here you are on my blog reading my art criticism, commenting on it, and then faulting me for writing it, when, having read it, you should have noticed how 3 of the most famous, if not THE most famous living art critics cut Bacon’s art down because, well, they didn’t really “get” it, two of the three of them preferring the kind of art that is a conversation piece, and NOT an expression of visual intelligence, and the other preferring the comfort of mediocrity. You won’t find that kind of a defense of Bacon, slamming three art critics, anywhere else. Art criticism also allows me to formulate my own ideas in words, which is largely useful as a defense against non-artist, art critics, who just don’t have trained eyes and don’t really know what goes into making an image, and, as I said, have, being word smiths, an over-fondness for the art that revolves around the word, such as conversation piece art.

        There would have been a lot more artist critics in the past if there was a forum for them to easily publish their views. Imagine the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists who gathered in bars to debate their ideas. Surely they had ideas to express and debate. I’m sure Manet must have had some. Van Gogh, in his letters to Theo often expresses his own art criticism of sorts, though, a limitation in the past is that artists wouldn’t have had the opportunity necessarily to see for themselves what art was happening all over. But if he were live today, and could see art online, and could easily publish his thoughts, would he only express them via the post, or email, to his brother?

        You wrote: “Most criticism, if it survives at all, ends up in musty tomes hidden away on remote shelving of university libraries.” That is also the destiny of most art, incidentally.

        “To do both seems schizophrenic to me. Artists make better use of their time by making their art.” It would seem that way for a certain kind of artist in the past. But I’m sure, damned well sure, that lots of artist like Leonardo or Michelangelo were so multifaceted, that merely writing their opinions on art would be among the least of the multiple challenges they took aboard. In fact Leonardo’s notebooks are filled with his thoughts on his beliefs and processes. Again, the time devoted to art criticism may be negligible, or productive.

        Right now I’m working on some ideas I haven’t seen anyone express, and a few of my articles have gone viral, sorta’, among artists, because I said some obvious stuff that just doesn’t get said. Artists have written me personally to thank me for helping them see through the bullshit.

        And, while critics can conventionally bully artists without worrying about the artists coming right back at them, and some artists are being hammered right now with unjust art criticism (read any of my articles dealing with Dana Schutz, or the one defending Cindy Sherman, or the one defending Glenn Brown), they might be biting off more than they can chew if they decide to take me down. I can defend myself with words and arguments, and know enough about art, art history, and the history of ideas to stand up to them, though it is their specific training and career to pen their opinions, and only a past-time for me to do that with mine. It is, you might say, a hobby.

        Right now I’m working on ideas (which art critics may nick) about how visual language operates outside of how we construct the world via narrativity in oral/written language, and how that is lost in conversation piece art. I’m elaborating my thought about this in writing about Alfred Kubin (soon to be published here), and about my own recent B&W digital drawings.

        Another issue is that I work digitally, though I merely switched mediums and largely work within the tradition of mostly Western painting. I continue it, but add new possibilities. A lot of my work people mistake for physical art, and that’s an easy mistake to make. Art critics and general audiences are not quite up to, in my experience, accepting digitally created art in the tradition of fine art painting, even if artists have always switched up traditional tools for more modern, flexible, and convenient ones. This has to do with the marketplace as well, and the need for one of a kind commodities to brand. But that is not as important as the vision manifested in the image. So, the best critic out there to champion or defend my own work is me. Almost nobody has the same mix of experience of a fine art background AND having gone through the steep learning curve to Master at least one digital art program, and use it effectively.

        Lastly, I would say that to me it is schizophrenic for an artist to NOT be a critic. Why should an artist not be able to articulate what he or she is doing, why, why it matters, why it isn’t garbage, and so on? If we leave art criticism to the critics, well, than you will not have a beautifully illustrated, eloquent, and bad-ass defense of Bacon. You will just have the shitty, anti-art, opinion of critics who, in the era of conceptual art, when the visual is completely subordinated to the conceptual and thus verbal/written language, have a strong tendency to dominate the art world and artists. Look at how the crappy art criticism of Rosalind Krauss (barely intelligible Postmodern mental masturbation on steroids) has had an effect on recent art, what gets shown, what is popular, and what disappears in ignomy.

        Right now, all art is supposed to be political. But I can out-argue that in one paragraph, and nobody can come back at me because I have the best argument. If you haven’t heard me say it, it’s this: Political art is only considered good, or is completely dismissed, based on whether or not the viewer agrees with the political conclusions of the art. For example, in today’s world, no pro-Trump art is going to get off the ground, no matter how good it is. Thus, the art is completely subordinate to largely foregone conclusions. Art becomes itself irrelevant, and a mere vessel for political ideas which MUST serve a particular political agenda.

        On top of all that, I for one have a need to write and express my ideas, often in the morning over a cup of coffee. That’s what I am doing now. I am replying to you and writing art criticism at the same time. You will also find some political articles, and articles touching on philosophy here. I’ve written articles about free will (I’m waiting for someone to successfully debate me on that), consciousness, why OSHO is a fraud, Solipsism, AI, and other things I am interested in.

        If I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t even have a blog.

        At the same time I’ve made a series of 43 images so far, in the last 8 months, while also learning new software and innovating new styles (though when you do that in a traditional art style but using contemporary means of doing so, there’s no accolades or acknowledgment, for, example, for being the best digital impasto painter). My free time may be running out, however, as I’m not making any money off of this, and may have to go back to full-time teaching in 6 months or so if I can’t figure out how to get more exposure, funding, and so on.

        Where I think you are correct is that I need to be more focused about what I write about, perhaps. I find writing about politics in art, and dealing at all with the really political views in contemporary art really taxing. But I was the first person to have the huevos rancheros to write a serious article defending Dana Schutz, though I took down the original post after being threatened by a hate group and deciding I didn’t wanna’ deal with those people. So, politics is where I don’t want to get involved so much. American politics, and American art politics is particularly toxic, vicious, hypocritical, reductionist, anti-art, anti-reason, and increasingly censorial, dictatorial, and downright dangerous.

        Or, to put it all much, much more succintly? How much of my time do you imagine I devote to writing art criticism. I think an hour a day might be a generous estimation. Would an hour a day of writing about art be bad for an artist? How is that possible?

        Cheers, and hope you keep reading and especially looking at my art (the more you look the more you will be rewarded), and I have some surprises coming up in the next few months in the latter department.

        ~ Eric


      2. Eric–
        Wow! I’m snowed by the essay you wrote in answer to my snotty letter commenting on your Bacon piece–and honored that you would take the time and effort to write it. Thank you.

        You made many points that tempted a response, but I’m resisting doing so until I’ve given them a little more thought. However, your position on the validity of digital art reminded me of a statement made in the, I think ’60s, by Hugh Edwards, the then curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago (and the creator of the department).

        Hugh was defending photography against the widely held claim at the time that photography wasn’t an art form because the camera is a machine and all you have to do to make a photograph is push a button and the machine does the rest. Ridiculous, of course. His answer: Media doesn’t make art, artists make art.

        I have yet to read your defense of digital painting, but I’m certain that at the present the most advanced “cutting edge” art (what an awful term!) is digital and electronic art. And a new technology known only to some nerd is lurking just around the corner that will supersede digital art. But at the same time, I’m also sure that something new can still be “said” by sloshing paint around on flat surfaces. Hugh would agree.

        As for art criticism, except for an occasional piece in THE NATION by Barry Schwabsky (and now, it seems, your blog), I deliberately avoid it. My impression is that much if not most critical writing on art is done not to say something meaningful about art, but to show how smart the writer is and how artists and the art world should kow-tow to his/her judgment about what is good and what is bad. Why should I–or anyone–care? But then, I don’t try to sell art so I can afford to ignore this stuff more easily than those who do. Too many rich collectors look for someone to tell them what they should buy. There is always some scribbler ready to jump up and fill this need and send the collector on his way.

        One more, then I’ll stop. Hannah Black’s demand that Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket” be removed and destroyed is ridiculous on the face of it. I’m all for political correctness (as a gay man I’ve experienced plenty of the other kind), but like everything else, it can go too far and that is what Ms. Black has done. I think it’s not politically incorrect to state that she is playing the race card. I hold few firm beliefs about art, but there is one that I cling to as an axiom: Nobody owns subject matter.

        I’d like to write more but instead I’ll paraphrase Leonardo:

        ‘Tell me if anything is ever finished.’


        Liked by 1 person

      3. Hi Rick: You got me over my morning coffee again. And that means in writing mode. So, you spurned me to clarify a few of my ideas. Hope you don’t mind.

        Well, when you define “art criticism” that way, which I don’t find inaccurate (though I think there are still some decent ones here and there, usually for my tastes retired, about to, or just dead), than I can see your point. What artist would want to waste her or his time producing THAT?! And from the other side – the view of the art world in general – it’s probably very risky for artists to say anything, unless of course it’s politically correct and could fit on a thimble, because the role of the artist is to produce commodities. You could say a lot of my “art criticism” is “anti-art criticism” in that respect.

        My defense of digital art is years old. I agree that one can, of course, still make meaningful painting with traditional means. It’s just a bit, once you’ve made the transition, like I’d feel typing this up on a typewriter. There are many different ways of using the computer, and merely doing so is not an achievement in itself. In my case I use it for rather classic purposes, meaning I spend most my time drawing with a stylus and a tablet (make digital drawings and paintings). And, the younger generation of art students who learn both traditional and computer techniques (usually the illustration rather than the fine art end of the spectrum) come out respecting the old ways, but using the computer because it’s just so much more flexible, fast (you don’t have to wait for anything to dry), clean, and allows one to use ones imagination more and be more creative. So, at least in my case, I have far, far, far more in common with Van Gogh or Francis Bacon than I do with, say, photography at all, or even probably 90% of artists using digital media. You can say it’s just another tool for making painting, with its own strengths and weaknesses, but I think the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses, and I rather think fine artists and the art world cling to the older techniques because of salability of commodities (though you can sell photos), and artists not wanting to have to relearn how to do things, and it’s a steep learning curve. But arguing against digital art is kinda’ like arguing against oil paint in favor of egg tempura.

        Regarding political correctness. Well, I’m so damned sick of it, and how identity politics is now become a gross caricature of itself, that while I am all for ethics/morality, I’m not sure that “critical theory” and neo-Marxism, and radical politics really live up to my own moral/ethical/rational standards of what is truly a fair social contract, and how people should regard and treat one another. With Dana Schutz, the protesters went so far as demanding that a current show be shut down, when there was no painting in it that they were opposed to, but they felt she needed to be made a permanent example of because of their own interpretation of another painting in another show, which contradicted the artist’s intent. I think an honest person might have to ask the uncomfortable question of whether persecuting an artist in such a way is in the name of fighting discrimination, or in the name of exercising it. But what I am getting at is that I’m so sick of art being filtered through politics, which means also filtering the visual through spoken/written language – a double filtration/homogenization process, that I wonder at the place of morality in art at all, and might prefer art that simply disavowed it. In a similar way, I am seriously thinking that politics (unless it’s the subject of the class one is taking) have no place in the university.

        Currently (as in, in recent weeks) I’m interested in the amoral, non-rational, expression of human cognition through visual language. When you look at Bacon, what is his moral stance? Who knows? By the way, he’s a guy who also did really a lot of art criticism, but it was through interviews: just answering questions. One of the sad mistakes of the real art critics was apparently NOT being familiar with the content of those interviews, which I greedily read. Bacon STILL stands out to me as the greatest painter of at least the second half of the last century. This kind of visual expression, which is fast disappearing in the art world, is accessed and assessed without using the rational mind based in verbal/written language (sentences), nor through foregone conclusions. Those are mere impediments. You can’t learn to appreciate a Beethoven string quartet by reading about it, examining his politics, his biology and whatnot, but only by listening to it. It’s the same with visual art. You learn by looking. I think people are not aware of how much they define the world through verbal languages and conclusions which are reduced to sentences, or memes. In Eastern philosophy, this kind of thinking is NOT the way to access truth, but surely the impediment. Maybe there’s room for more than one mental tool, or setting of it aside, for harnessing, or rather absorbing reality.

        And this other kind of cognition/expression may be more wild, libidinous, non-rational, free, violent, spiritual, and what have you, sort of like our dreams which we can’t really filter. Check back in a day or two for my newest drawing, which is a lot of the above, and looks a bit like the love child of H.R. Giger and Alfred Kubin (if you don’t know Kubin, I’m writing about him as well, and he’s rather interesting for just these sorts of reasons).

        Cheers. And now for another cup of coffee.

        Best wishes.


      4. Hi Eric,

        [I just read your latest response, but this below is my response to your earlier email. Our email is getting a little tangled chronologically, probably because we’re half a world apart. (I live in Chicago.) Regarding your latest, I’ll only say that I’m happy to learn of your ideas on criticism and digital art. We seem to agree in many areas, and since we’re human, I’m sure we disagree in many others.]

        Regarding your critique of my ideas on artist as critic, my initial impulse was to defend against a couple areas where you seemed to misconstrue or misunderstand what I wrote. However, engaging in polemics does not interest me and I am ignoring that impulse. I have no case against artists writing criticism, if that’s what they like to do. But the valid function of criticism itself, by artists or otherwise, is of great interest to me. So please excuse me for bloviating a bit about it. My ideas are not original and in the view of the big critical guns they’re probably outdated and laughable.

        If done correctly, criticism can be useful to both the public and the artist. Much of the public doesn’t have a clue about art beyond that it’s either pretty and pleasant to look at or, in these benighted times, an ugly pile of crap.

        “What’s that?” asks Joe Bloe before a Rauschenberg “combine.” Jane Bloe answers: “Oh, it’s nothing. It’s just art. Forget about it, honey.” An honest art critic could explain to the Bloes what he hought Rauschenberg was trying to do and how well he succeeded, and perhaps the Bloes would leave the museum a little more enlightened about art than when they entered. Emphasis on “honest.” Unfortunately, much high criticism is so very high that the Bloes wouldn’t even try to read it. To them it is meaningless gibberish.

        The critic can do almost the same thing for the artist–lay out his impression of what were the artist’s intentions, and how well the artist succeeded in achieving them. The artist then applies his own critical thinking skills to the critic’s words and accepts or rejects them. Perhaps he/she agrees with the critic, sees how she/he could have done this or that better, and profits thereby. Or he/she realizes that the critic is full of shit and moves on. Whether the critic likes or dislikes the art he is criticizing is irrelevant and doesn’t belong in a valid critical review.

        But saying that Francis bacon “paints meat” is not criticism. It is nothing more than the opinion of a pseudo-intellectual schoolyard bully.

        But now I find my own self verging on the margins of criticism and must stop lest I become a certified hypocrite. I’ll probably get fired up again by your many interesting essays and enter your comments section from time to time. But I will continue reading and looking at your entertaining and informative blog. Keep writing and keep making art.

        RE: Alfred Kubin: I much love his work and his delightfully twisted mind. I’ll be on the lookout for your drawing.


        Liked by 1 person

      5. Hi Rick:

        The guy who said “Francis Bacon paints meat” is surely one of the most educated, lucid, intelligent, and respected art critics, because all the ones I quoted are. But, I don’t mind your opinions on art critics.

        There are a couple YouTube series I rather like with art criticism. One is Smarthistory:, and the other was put together by the Met and was artists talking about art they like.

        I think art criticism works better in video (I’ve made a few, but they are time consuming), because people can see the works as they hear about them, and become informed. It’s one of the better ways for me to promote my own work. I might make a video of the Kubin article, just because there’s so little out there about him, kind of like Hundertwasser.

        And if you like Kubin, hmmm, you should be rather a fan of my B&W works. But I’ll include a mini-screenshow in the Kubin piece, which just has to do with why he interests me, and it’s partly to do with exploring some of the same broad subconscious mental terrain.



  3. I enjoyed reading your article very much. I am inspired to paint in ways of my own choosing, now that you’ve shown me what crap “major” critics are spouting. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great article- especially instructive was to show the mediocre, crappy art these critics actually like. Bacon’s work is so important and his technical virtuosity is especially underreported. Loved it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. You hit every point I would have. I am only 16 years old, and a big fan of Bacon’s work for three years.

    Your point on the meat was very much, my favorite. My advanced placement, art teacher consistently dismisses Bacon as “a whiny nihilist with funding”.

    Not sure where that came from, but figured I would be wasting my time, debating.

    P.S-Your art is very unique and amazing, been perusing it for a while.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. On occasion I feel the need to educate otherwise intelligent people about Fine Art when they make very sloppy declarations such as, ” I don’t know what all the fuss is about Banksy, I can’t stand his work” or ” Basquiat is way overrated.”
    One of the greatest qualities a healthy intellect can possess is the ability to recognize brilliance in that which is disliked or even abhorred. I cannot stand free form Jazz composed by artists such as Charlie Parker, but never would I let my tastes cause me to utter an intellectually irresponsible statement like, ” Jazz is overrated”. Counting the dead as well as the living, billions of jazz lovers simply cannot be wrong; especially when many of those Jazz lovers are highly intelligent , cultured people. Logic and reason must be used before offering up strong opinions.
    I am amazed and very disappointed that Peter Schjeldahl would ignore decades of high praise for Francis Bacon by some of the best minds in the world. The fact that many painting students in the finest universities go through a ‘ Bacon ‘ phase should be proof enough of his genius. What a shame that Schjeldahl would forget one of the basic rules of good criticism and let his ego and tastes dictate what he wrote about Bacon. It hurts because Peter has written wonderful criticism and fully deserves his position at The New Yorker Magazine. He slipped, and so did the others you brought to our attention in your article, but do not let yourself get too worked up about it because Bacon looks down on all us mortals and laughs sardonically as millions of new viewers shake their heads after seeing his work and say,” How the hell did he come up with those images” or ” I have never seen my nightmares so beautifully painted.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Christopher:

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Your comment made me think a few things. First off is the question of whether or not thousands or millions of people can be wrong. It should give one occasion to pause if something is deemed outstanding by millions and one just has no positive reaction to it. Another example close to home for me is the people who dismiss Van Gogh, or think he is only famous because of the sensationalism around his life. Nevertheless, I am not a real fan of Matisse. I can recognize the sort of skill and innovation he has, but they don’t really interest me. And this is the element of “not my cup of tea”. Among contemporary artists, well, Hirst and Koons do very little for me, but, again, I can see what they’ve accomplished, and while a lot of it is garbage (Hirst’s dot paintings), I have to admit there’s something there, but not much that I personally like. But one only need to look at the most popular singers, and unless you believe Justin Bieber is a great singer, than we are faced with the knowledge that our fellow hominids, unless authority has bestowed quality upon a creation, will likely most appreciate the rather derivative, or whatever is peddled at them by whoever has the strongest marketing platform.

      We could then say that Bieber doesn’t have the same sort of recognition as Bacon. There’s a difference between being played on commercial radio, and having a retrospective at the Guggenheim. But, again, Tracey Emin’s drawings or paintings get a lot of recognition by as far as I can tell are pretty crappy.

      Thus I will grant critics the right to slam art no matter how popular or respected it is, provided they make solid arguments and not vicious personal attacks. In the case the the 3 critics I quotes, well, there’s a heady mix of bad arguments and obvious mean-spiritedness, which is a deadly combo.

      That said, just today I was thinking the same thing you said in regards to jazz. I know it’s good, and I can tell by listening to it, but mostly it doesn’t attract me. A couple reason are that there are rarely vocals, and the songs are often very long. Top that off with I’m not a fan of brass or saxophones, and jazz really isn’t geared for me. The same could be said of opera.

      Lastly, the problem isn’t just that these 3 critics sought to demolish Bacon’s reputation. Like you, I know they can’t really accomplish that. However, for a practicing artist such as myself, there’s another more dreaded message in there – not only are these critics against the type of paintings Bacon made, but also similar ones (ex., the attack on Lucien Freud), and thus a whole strain or tradition of visual art. It is the equivalent of announcing that all Jazz is dead and vile, but commercial Pop is magnificent. This view is further not restricted to these three critics, but rather they are merely parroting or reflecting the general zeitgeist, in which case the tide is surely against imaginative figurative painters (or perhaps those with a darker sensibility). I don’t really care what they think, though. In the end I lost respect for their eyes, and kinda’ think they are jokes. They may be wickedly articulate, but need to wipe the scales off their eyes, IMO.


    2. My comment on Christopher Bright’s response to “In Defense of Artist, Francis Bacon” is the underlying assumption by some, if not by Mr. Bright himself, that there are absolutes in art, and while it’s hardly ever explicitly stated, writers like Peter Scjeldahl, Jed Perl, Barry Schwabsky, etc, can tell us the “right” or “wrong” answers to questions like “is it good? is it bad?” The only response to those who entertain this mistaken idea: de gustibus non disputandum est. If professional critics can enrich our understanding of art, good for them and lucky for us. If they want to tell us what to like or dislike, what is “good” and what is “bad,” shame on them and shame on us for allowing ourselves to be humbugged by such twaddle. Essentially, I agree with Mr. Bright, but I dislike the weight he seems to assign to the opinions of professional critics. Why should I, why should anyone care about their opinions?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Richard:

        Thanks for commenting and giving another intelligent perspective on the topic.

        Why should anyone care about a critic’s opinion? I like the late Robert Hughes and so I am interested in his opinions, though often our tastes veer (I am not nearly as enthusiastic about Rauschenberg or Paula Rego as he is). Thus I would offer that one may care what a critic thinks if one sufficiently respects the critic’s opinions, and one can surely pit critics against each other if one has access to a wide enough pool of them. I don’t like Jerry Salz, but he’s still useful to find out what a certain sector thinks about art. We can be amateur critics ourselves and contest the professional critics if and when we disagree.

        I think you are correct that Perl, Schjeldahl, and Salz went way too far in declaring Bacon to be a bad artist and worse, a bad person. They were not trying to widen our horizons in those articles, but to slam a (deceased) artist. Though, I gather they believe what they were saying and so thought they were disabusing us of believing in some tripe. For me the problem wasn’t so much that they believed an artist was bad or over-inflated (I feel the latter about Hirst, Koons, Warhol, Duchamp, Matisse, Prince, Emin, Wool…), but that their arguments to defend their position were themselves bad, as I think I showed.

        I agree that there are no absolutes in art, but also think it’s not completely relative, which is an equally popular and painful position. The trick, I’d think, is to be able to swim in the deeper waters and away from the security of fixed standards or opinions at the shallow banks of perspective.

        All that said, I’ve been pretty hard on the likes of Jeff Koons, but considering he’s in the top 3 richest artists in the world, and I make nothing, perhaps I can be forgiven, besides which, nobody has so far disentangled my arguments.

        Cheers, and thanks again for furthering the conversation.


  7. I’m so glad you wrote this. I was reeling from Jerry Saltz destructive and lackluster critique & came searching for a repose. I think Saltz is just in it for the shock value and he himself is a version of performance art (DOUBLE GULP) – He himself was a failed artist and is absolutley obsessed with sexuality in art – just follow his instagram to see… oh and so obsessed with politics too. Completley floundering his pulitzer prestige with shitty artists and ego.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yup! He also worships Duchamp’s urinal. If you hate Bacon and think the urinal is a great work of art (and not a clever prop punking the art world of the time), than, I can’t take you seriously as a critic who has any love of art.


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