David Bruce: Art Anecdotes

Being a performance artist is like having a license to be creative and have fun. For example, Ohio University School of Art graduate students Nate Lareau and Marin Abell saw 2,400 ping-pong balls for sale on eBay. They immediately bought them for $80, then set about finding ways to make use of them. One thing they did was to put them in a dryer (on the tumble with no-heat setting) at a coin-operated laundry (with permission). According to Mr. Lareau, “That was a good one. The ping-pong balls in the dryer created quite a racket. They sounded like a hailstorm, and looked a little like a weather system.” Another thing they did was to simply pour the ping-pong balls onto a street on a hill. The street was lined with bricks, and the sound the balls created as they bounced down the hill was interesting—like rain hitting a roof. Finally, Mr. Abell and a friend took the balls and a ping-pong-ball shooter and played a game where Mr. Abell tied 10 tennis rackets to his body and tried to hit the ping-pong balls being shot at him. Mr. Abell said he actually got very good at hitting the balls. Mr. Lareau and Mr. Abell still have the ping-pong balls, and the balls may yet appear in future pieces of performance art they create.

When famed Canadian portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh took a photograph of playwright George Bernard Shaw, Mr. Shaw said that he would give him only five minutes to take the shot. Mr. Karsh pleaded for 10 minutes, to which Mr. Shaw replied, “When I said five, I meant 10. When you say 10, you probably mean half an hour. This is likely to end up with you taking all the time you want.” Mr. Shaw spoke truly. The photo shoot ended up taking much, much longer than five—or 10—minutes. During the photo shoot, the two men discussed caricatures—drawings that exaggerate (sometimes cruelly) the features of one’s face and body. Mr. Shaw spoke about the best caricature of himself that he had ever seen. At a dinner party, he conversed with his hostess, then admired a caricature of himself hanging on a wall. He felt that the caricature was cruel, but still the best he had ever seen done of himself. However, when he went to take a closer look at the caricature, he discovered that he had been looking at his reflection in a mirror.

Fritz Leopold Hennig, a painter, was a German prisoner of war who was returned to Germany by way of Venice after the end of World War I. As a painter, he wanted desperately to see Venice, especially since he believed he would never again be in Venice. He asked for permission to leave the ship, the Semiramis, but found it difficult to get permission to leave, as shore leave for returning prisoners of war was against regulations. However, an Italian officer was sympathetic to him. He told Mr. Hennig to speak only English, then he and Mr. Hennig got ready to leave the ship by the gangway ladder. A guard stopped them, telling them that no civilian could leave the ship, but the Italian officer replied, “That’s all right. This is the American Consul who has just been visiting the ship.” The guard apologized and saluted Mr. Hennig, then the Italian officer and Mr. Hennig visited Venice for two days before reboarding the ship and returning Mr. Hennig to Germany.

Banksy, the British graffiti artist, makes fun of real people and of art. In 2003, at a London anti-war demonstration, he passed out signs that stated, “I Don’t Believe in Anything. I’m Just Here for the Violence.” He has smuggled his works of art into major museums and left them there. For example, he put a version of the Mona Lisa (with a smiley face) in the Louvre, and he put a beautiful country landscape (sectioned off by police crime-scene tape) in the Tate. Banksy’s art sells quite well. Ralph Taylor, who works in contemporary art for Sotheby’s, said about him, “He is the quickest-growing artist anyone has ever seen of all time.” After Sotheby’s held a sale of his art, Banksy posted a painting on his Web site: <http://www.banksy.co.uk/&gt;. The painting showed an auctioneer and a crowd of bidders, and it has this caption: “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this sh*t.”

A man by the name of Joseph Cornell was infatuated by an actress named Luise Rainier, who had won Oscars for her work in The Great Ziegfeld and The Good Earth and who was living in Switzerland. Each year, Mr. Cornell made and sent her a carefully crafted box. She never acknowledged the gifts, but simply put them in a closet. When she sold her house, she threw away 20 of Mr. Cornell’s boxes. Back in New York, she was walking down a street when she came across an art gallery advertising James Cornell boxes. Because the art gallery was closed, the following day she phoned an art museum to find out how much a James Cornell box was worth. She learned that Mr. Cornell was a famous American artist and sculptor, and she learned that she had thrown away approximately $20 million of his art.

In New York City, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe lived together with very little money. Ms. Smith remembers, “We had no money to get anything to eat, no money for art supplies—we were considerably down.” However, the two ran across an abandoned pair of very expensive alligator-skin shoes in the street; these shoes were worth $300 or $400. Ms. Smith looked at Mr. Mapplethorpe and asked, “Clothes or art?” Mr. Mapplethorpe replied, “Both,” and then he put on the shoes, using newspaper to make a good fit. A little later, he went home and put the expensive shoes in an art installation he was making. Ms. Smith remembers, “Everything was always Life or Art. It was magical when something could cross over and be both.”

Rembrandt van Rijn didn’t have to worry about models. The people depicted in his Night Watch are all people who paid him to be in the painting. Those who paid more got a better position in the painting.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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