I write about artists for Smithsonian magazine as a way of thinking more deeply about my own work, as well as theirs. An aging Matisse told Picasso he hoped they would live on in the work of future artists; that was his idea of “success.” And T.S. Eliot said that modern poets read the poetry of the past to see what use it is, whether it can be a living force in the poetry not yet written. For me, the whole point of art history is to keep past artists alive, and to see their ghosts in the art we make now.
   
You can read the first paragraph of four of my Smithsonian articles, and one written for a scholarly journal, as you scroll down this page. To read the whole article, click on the link to the pdf file.


Magnificent Obsession

Giacometti struggled to capture perception in sculpture and paint--and thought he'd failed

by Paul Trachtman
“The artist,” Alberto Giacometti once told his boarding school classmates, “must portray things as he sees them, not as others show them.” He was just 16, but those words would define and haunt him for the rest of his life. Born just 100 years ago on October 10, 1901, he became one of the titans of 20th-century sculpture and painting, an artist who gave Picasso advice on sculpting and was picked to draw Matisse’s portrait for a medallion honoring the painter’s career. Yet to his last days, Giacometti was still trying to live up to those boyhood words, and claiming that he’d failed.
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Matisse & Picasso
Friends--and rivals--throughout their lives, they spurred each other to make art modern

by Paul Trachtman

Modern art was born ugly. “It was Matisse who took the first step into the undiscovered land of the ugly,” an American critic wrote, describing the 1910 Salon des Indépendents in Paris. “The drawing was crude past all belief, the color was as atrocious as the subject. Had a new era of art begun?” Even Matisse himself was sometimes shocked by his creations.
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Degas and His Dancers
What the painter saw in the ballet was, paradoxically, 'the depoetization of life.'

by Paul Trachtman

“Yesterday i spent the whole day in the studio of a strange painter called Degas,” Parisian man of letters Edmond de Goncourt wrote in his diary in 1874. “Out of all the subjects in modern life he has chosen washerwomen and ballet dancers...it is a world of pink and white...the most delightful of pretexts for using pale, soft tints.” Edgar Degas, 39 years old at the time, would paint ballerinas for the rest of his career, and de Goncourt was right about the pretext. “People call me the painter of dancing girls,” Degas later told Paris art dealer Ambroise Vollard. “It has never occurred to them that my chief interest in dancers lies in rendering movement and painting pretty clothes.”
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James Turrell's Light Fantastic
The innovative artist is transforming a crater in the Arizona desert into a monument of light

by Paul Trachtman

Standing on the rim of an ancient volcanic crater in northern Arizona, with the Painted Desert as a spectacular backdrop, James Turrell surveys all he has wrought. For a quarter of a century, this 60-year-old artist has been transforming the crater into an immense naked-eye observatory. It is a modern counterpart of sites such as Newgrange in Ireland and Abu Simbel in Egypt, where earlier civilizations watched celestial events with both curiosity and awe.
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Artists of Easter Island
Recuperating their Culture--or Reinventing it?

by Paul Trachtman

The giant stone statues that haunt the coast of Easter Island, the work of ancient artists, remain fixed in the world's mind as icons of the island's mystery and romance. But Easter Island, known to its native people as Rapa Nui, is alive with contemporary artists who are reviving their culture in the shadow of their spectacular past. Katherine Routledge's remark about Rapa Nui in 1914, that "the inhabitants of today are less real than the men who have gone," prefaced an age of archeology and studies of culture that has often adopted her attitude. It is often assumed that little of the ancient culture is alive on the island now, that the traditions were lost. In interviews with contemporary Rapa Nui artists and cultural leaders, they voice many points of view about this, reflecting the richness of the island's reviving culture.
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