Larry Aarons is New York-based artist who is rabidly respectful of the Old Masters and Classicism http://www.larryaaronsart.com/. In fact, shouldn’t we all be? Larry was persistent in his insistence that I chat with him and I’m so glad that we finally got this conversation done because I believe this interview alone is a solid addition to what will become his artistic legacy. He’s profound and funny. Enjoy.
“Creative is very subjective … I respect creativity in all forms, but without the classic understanding of why one does what one does, “creativity” can be an empty crutch. Not everything is creative although I will not judge those who call themselves artists just because they are being ‘creative.’”
MICHAEL: Hello Larry, Your graphite portraits are very classical and elegant. I also get sort of a wistful quality from them - sort of a passage of time. How do you view your work?
LARRY: Michael, Thank you for your compliment. Since we are really products of our environment, I think it might be helpful to understand a bit about me. I grew up in the Bronx, New York in a very tough neighborhood, "Fort Apache the Bronx." I was not the best of students. As a kid, I was never exposed to great art or classic writing back then. My life and my home was more about just getting through the day. My dad worked seven days a week. But what is funny, the one image I remember from my early bedroom is a copy of a Van Gogh painting called “The Bedroom.”
So how did I get to where I found elegance and classic understanding? I was drawn to and loved world history and I also had an art teacher in high school who saw my drawings. Yes, I was drawing way back then, but I do not think I would call them drawings. He helped me see my potential. I did not even know how to spell potential then. So he helped guide me and I graduated. Were my parents surprised - even more than me. I went off to become an illustrator and studied at The School of Visual Arts in New York City.
While there, I was fortunate to learn in depth about the classics in literature and certainly in art. It has never left me and over my 45 years as both a creative director and advertising agency owner, I worked with many artists and illustrators and their styles helped shape my views of drawing and I also traveled all over the world to see and surround myself with the great works of art, paintings, sculpture and architecture. The key was and is seeing what came before me and wanting to be able to do that as well.
The more I saw, the more I was drawn to the classic world. I felt a connection to what came before me. It was my 45 years of experience and seeing so many wonders that built the vision of my art that I share with you and the rest of the art community. You mentioned wistful; my pastels do have a sense of longing and contemplation to them. I guess you can truly say it’s the influence of five thousand years of cultured history. Some classic art can be severe and distant, but I view my art as having a sense of humanity and approachability. I create images that answer the question, “Who are we?” This has certainly been played back to me by the many people who have seen my art.
MICHAEL: Do you see a connection at all between the Classicism in your work and your childhood in the Bronx? I mean, I don't see "Fort Apache, the Bronx" - or the stereotype of it anyway - in your work.
LARRY: Fort Apache was an area and just one part of my life growing up. I traveled across many areas of the Bronx. The classic “Bronx” was an amalgam of great building designs. The Grand Concourse had premier buildings that to this day offer an influence on design. Although now very rundown, back then they were quite wonderful. I visited there often. The great movie theaters (Lowes Paradise) were a classic vision of a Roman outdoor amphitheater (and entrance with fluted and Doric and Ionic topped columns) and in fact, the ceiling had twinkling lights to mimic being outdoors.
What I remember fondly about those buildings that still hangs in my memory today are their designs. Curved cornered buildings, many of them had statues on pediments, images on cornices built into the brick designs, the concrete edifices were of a design that often mimicked the classic world. So as I look back at my Bronx life, it gave me the classic vision to see things and influenced me, although I really did not know quite what I was witnessing. Today, I review many of those images in books. I can see why those classic images became so imbedded in my artwork and continue to call out to me. I’m drawn to the great museums of the world where I seek out many of those types of images, which bring back warm feelings. When I go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (which is quite often), as I sit and draw, usually with a crowd behind me, I am transported back to that classic world of growing up in the Bronx.
MICHAEL: The art world today seems more concerned about creativity, expression and process. Classicism seems to be an antiquated thing for many people. How does this fit into the world today and what do you think about the art world today overall?
LARRY: You may be right and that does sadden me. However I have to ask you who are you talking about in the art world today? The big name buyers of the big name paintings or those individuals who are trying to be the art world “hipsters” who are out to just make a buck? Flipping art has become an art profession unto itself.
Creative is very subjective. I know from my many years in the advertising world as a creative director. I respect creativity in all forms, but without the classic understanding of why one does what one does, “creativity” can be an empty crutch. Not everything is creative although I will not judge those who call themselves artists just because they are being “creative.” With all of the art fairs going on and work seemingly being produced by the ton, the word “creative” leaves a lot to think about. What is creative indeed? Creative without a reason to substantiate it is empty.
MICHAEL: Preach brother preach.
LARRY: “Classicism seems to be an antiquated thing for many people.” I don’t agree. You mentioned classicism being antiquated …
MICHAEL: I meant that many people see it as antiquated.
LARRY: Well … look at the lines of people waiting at the Louvre and Museum D’Orsay in Paris, the Academia (Academy) and the Uffizi in Florence, the Riks Museum in Amsterdam, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Prado and the Hermitage. Classic museums draw millions of visitors from all over the world to see classic paintings and sculptures. Rembrandt, Di Vinci, Michelangelo, and Botticelli, the list goes on and on. Look at the artists from a more recent period, JMW Turner. Is his work less classic? How about the classic paintings of Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, Sargent, Zorn, Gauguin or any of the dozens of others or their contemporaries? Are they any less classic?
They all stood on the shoulders of giants from the early classic world that came before them; the world does appreciate the classics. Even if some classics are not thousands of years old. A classic art world is our heritage and all around the world, classic art is treasured and acknowledged.
MICHAEL: And again … How does Classicism fit into the world today and what do you think about the art world today overall?
LARRY: I acknowledge that all generations do change things. In many ways it is now the iPad art world. “Just give it to me now!” Some people think that seeing a movie on an iPad delivers the same experience as going out to a movie. How does it feel to see the original “Wizard of Oz” or how about “Gone with the Wind” on a two-inch screen?
Is seeing a classic painting or sculpture on an iPad as good as going to the museum? No! There is no substitute for the real classic experience. It is even more so in art. Can you imagine trying to explain why seeing the Mona Lisa in person is so wonderful versus someone viewing it on an iPad or such? It’s like trying to explain color to a blind person or taking someone to the Parthenon and have him say to you “What’s the fuss about all this? They’re only stones!”
Aside from the so-called great blockbuster modern shows, Warhol, Picasso, Magritte, Dali, Kandinsky and a select group of others, do you think most people can even name modern artists? I think what they will say instead is, “Did you hear how much that art went for at auction!” By the way, I want to make it clear I love the MOMA.
MICHAEL: I hear you.
LARRY: Is the modern art world a bubble waiting to burst? Maybe yes, by the looks of the prices things are going for. When I visited the Picasso Museum in Barcelona and saw his early years as a classically-trained artist, it made me proud to know that THAT is why he was such a giant. Classic training is the basis for all of our knowledge of art. People who do not acknowledge that are missing out on the early steps of the giants and the classic history of the worlds’ art culture. Do people think that Picasso just woke up one morning and said, “Today, I will be creative and paint Les Demoiselles D’Avignon?” No! It came from his personal experience and his history of classic training. Today that painting is a classic.
The classic world of art endures - otherwise they would not be called classics. Art world fads come and go and that’s why they are called “fads.” It is unfortunate that there is so much in today’s art world that is faddish. Quantity and quick process will never replace the classic approach. The acceptance of great classic artwork will endure for all the ages to come.
But don’t take my word for it. Just ask the person standing next to you in line the next time you go to a world-class, “classic” museum, “What piece of art are you here to see?”
MICHAEL: Well said. Okay, let’s breathe. Shall we? LOL. When you are actually painting, what's going through your mind? What's that process like? Emotional, intellectual or spiritual? Do you need silence or music? Can you paint plein air?
LARRY: Michael, I am totally absorbed in my work. I approach the beginning of my art somewhat like a dance. A move here, a move there. I study my model really carefully before I ever lift anything and begin, looking at the way light plays and the shadows fall. This can take awhile. If I can adjust light, then I do. Or have the model move. Drama is key. I like Chiaroscuro, a lighting which deepens the contrasts. Each piece is approached the same way, allowing the personality of the model to wash over me. "To Reach The Head You Must Touch The Heart." This is really how I think about and approach my art. Not cold and clinical, but warm with emotion.
I absorb everything I can way before I even touch the paper or canvas. The whole process is really a combo of emotion, thought and certainly the work is spiritual. I photograph the model and always have a reference to work from that never moves.
I have practiced mediation for many years, so for me it is easy to empty my mind and stay focused on my subject. I usually never have music on while I work. The silence is wonderful; it is sometimes called white noise. Once I start, I can be there for hours without moving. Certainly if I am in a museum drawing, I sit for many hours without getting up. When I'm with a model, I’m always thoughtful to give a break to the model, but even then, I do not drift away - my concentration stays sharp.
Plein air is not easy with models. The light constantly changes. Heat, wind weather conditions or any number of other factors change all the time. So once I find the time of day that is perfect, I then take pictures to make sure that I capture the light the way I want it. One of my favorite plein air pieces is "Zeus," a white pastel drawing on black paper that I did sitting outside.
Please take a look at my website to refresh the image in your mind. I actually waited until roughly 11 a.m. to have strong, hard light give me the deep shadows I wanted. It turned out really well. This fall, I will do some more plein air work to see where it takes me and where I can take it.
MICHAEL: Many artists tell me that painting is like meditation. If this is so, then why do you need to meditate? What's the difference? What does meditation do for you?
LARRY: I guess there are many artists who meditate by your statement. That’s wonderful. I agree that creating art is both satisfying and very much like mediation. I would guess they’re talking about being in the artistic zone.
My meditation training allows me to free myself from the mind’s constant, internal chatter and conversation that saps productive energy and clouds clear thinking. I do not know what others do, but this is what and why I meditate.
A great painter needs to work constantly. He trains his hand and mind to work seamlessly. Meditation is very much like that. Whether painting or drawing, you need to put constant effort into the work to become better at what you do. The mind is a muscle and it needs to be taught and trained what to do. I may be one of the lucky few that has the ability to be laser-like in my work. Just two weeks ago, I made a decision to create a large complicated drawing on a Thursday morning. It required a great deal of concentration and effort. It is a drawing of a sculpture from Florence, Italy which is just outside of the Uffizi galleries. It’s called, “Hercules and the Centaur.” I finished the entire drawing in just over 20 hours. That type of focus comes from my many years of meditation. I mentioned earlier that I do not listen to music when I work. No distractions for me. My meditation keeps my mind clear and focused. For me, meditation opens up clear thinking and frees my creative spirit, letting go of the ego, so that I can soar and achieve enormous satisfaction in my creative efforts.
MICHAEL: You were a creative director in the advertising world? I want to say that sounds glamorous, but I think I know better. What was that like?
LARRY: My days as one of the original, “Mad Men” was really one of the best times in my life. Being a creative director was yes, glamorous on the surface, shooting photos and working with beautiful women sometimes naked, going to exotic locations all over the world, yes it was a hard life.
That is the cherry on top of the whip crème. But you are right, it was not all that easy. It was a hard road of stress, deadlines, winning new business and being creative.
Here is what pressure is like being a creative director in advertising - being placed on the spot. Once I was in a conference room pitching a large client with the CEO and his team. As we were all introduced after all of the so- called round of introductions, the CEO looked at me (let’s just say he was and old IBMer) and asked what I did. My hair was long and I have a big mustache – creative guy.
Spontaneously, I held up a sheet plain, white paper in front of him and asked the CEO what he saw. He was cool and responded, “Why it’s a white sheet of paper!” as if, “Are you kidding?” His team was somewhat smirking. I responded, “That is very true!” then I said, as a I glanced at it to make a strong point, “I see unlimited possibilities to make you laugh, cry, be happy, be sad and turn consumers on to your product. There was this large pause, and then he stood up and said,” “You guys have my account!”
Creative is not in the execution, it is in the thinking before it is executed. “Creative” it permeates all that we as artists have to do be creative. Before, during and certainly after our work is done.
MICHAEL: Bravo. Finally Larry, Most people won't buy art let alone truly understand it. So what's the point? Why should people even care about art? Art is not curing cancer or ending war.
LARRY: There are no “shoulds.” Artists cannot force our will or tastes upon anyone. The truth is, either you love or like art or you don’t. It takes many years to understand the why and how and an artist did what s/he did. Most of us do not approach art that way.
When it comes to art, there are only three types of people. This is a basic principle and this can apply to art or any product: 1. The person who loves it. 2. The person who is on the fence about it. 3. The person who hates all and couldn’t care less about it. The only people art needs to talk to are #1 and #2.
Art cannot solve anything either. It speaks to you or it doesn’t. It touches an emotion, makes you happy to see it or look at it or it doesn’t. The only other person is the investor. They have a totally different set of rules to view art. I respect the #3 person(s) because they are right also. Because there is no right or wrong, it is all personal.
My desire is to share my feelings about how I created my art and what it means to me. By doing this, I let the viewer decide if they like it. To the person who is a cynic about art, I would offer them a chance to watch a child play with crayons or clay and see the excitement that they feel in just doing what comes so natural to them expressing how they feel. That’s what art is all about, personal expression. Will this change their minds? I don’t know, but it will certainly be nice to see their faces.
MICHAEL: Larry … What a pleasure!
LARRY: Best to you and thanks so much for your time.
Check out Larry Aarons at http://www.larryaaronsart.com/.