Latent Tendencies

I scratched my head, thinking you either have the chops or you don’t and if you don’t, why get unfairly stiffed? My first brush with academic failure came at age 12 in the form of a 'D' from Mary Jane Roper in 7thgrade art class.

That school year (1969-70) I rendered a burlap painting depicting Super Bowl IV (Lenny Dawson surveying the

Purple People Eaters

and checking off at the line); a linocut portraying a flock of abstract falcons descending on a city; and a pear-shaped catchall tray with this checkerboard relief thing goin’ on up the sides. Sculpted from clay, glazed black and fired in a kiln.

My mom still uses it.

Last week, with a couple of hours to kill in Washington, I popped into the National Gallery of Art


What follows, then, are six works of art that appealed to me and what I learned about them during my museum stroll. The stuff in


I’ve boosted from other sources. Everything else is pure, undiluted MM.

John Jay

, Gilbert Stuart (1794


A Constitution framer and later the original Chief Justice of the United States, John Jay was the first of a long line of founding fathers Gilbert Stuart painted. Impatient and eager to get back to his

writs of habeus corpus

, Jay posed only long enough for Stuart to capture his noggin. A stand-in donned the robe while Stuart finished everything below the neck. 

Green River Cliffs of Wyoming

, Thos. Moran (1871)

“In a bravura display of artistic license, Thomas Moran erased the reality of advancing civilization, conjuring instead an imagined scene of a pre-industrial West that neither he nor anyone else could have seen in 1871.”

My father’s kind of art (anything from the western U.S.) For the longest time, we had a framed Remington print hanging in our living room on

St. Clair


David w Goliath's head

, Castiglione (1655)


est known now for his elaborate engravings, and as the inventor of the printmaking technique of monotyping, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione was an Italian Baroque artist, painter, printmaker and

draftsman, of the Genoese school. He was known as

Il Grechetto

in Italy.

In the 7


grade, I considered myself an American adolescent lacking in artistic talent, of the Pleasant Valley school. I got a 'D' and was known for complaining about it. 

Allies Day

, Childe Hassam (1917)

Allies Day

is one of about thirty oil paintings that Childe Hassam made of NYC's flag-decked streets to celebrate the U.S. entry into World War I. 

Hassam painted another one featuring strictly U.S. flags that Jackie and I are both bugshit about. One day soon, we will procure, frame and hang a print in our Americana-themed basement. 

Head Resting on One Hand

, Edgar Degas (1888)

“Degas was much harder to take, with his spiny intelligence, his puzzling mixtures of categories, his unconventional cropping and, above all, his "coldness"- that icy, precise objectivity which was one of the masks of his unrelenting power of aesthetic deliberation.”


Icy, precise objectivity was


what I was trying to convey with the Super Bowl IV burlap in Mrs. Roper's class. Or maybe it was unrelenting power of aesthetic deliberation.

One of those. 

Wind from the Sea

, Andrew Wyeth (1947)

Wyeth was known for painting lonely rural landscapes, closely observed portraits and crisp interior still lifes (lives?) in a realistic and detailed manner.

I get my fondness for Wyeth from my mother.

When looking up Mrs. Roper’s first name in the

Blue Royal

, the Pleasant Valley Junior High yearbook, I couldn't help but notice she was the only teacher whom I had asked for an autograph:

Best wishes

, Mike. Mrs. Roper, Art. 1970.”

OK, I forgive you for the 'D.'

Besides, truth be told, the low mark had

everything to do with screwing around in class and nothing to do with lack of artistic talent.

I mean, c'mon! Abstract falcons descending on a city? At age 12?

Teachers foster God-given gifts. But they also plant seeds in young hearts and minds that sometimes only flower in the precipice-approaching years as an appreciation for creativity. 

Forty-two years later, I'm living Mary Jane Roper's best wishes.