20th century

Dorothy Napangardi: Floor and Family

Dorothy Napangardi, “Yuparli (Bush Banana),” 1993. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas (Australian, Warlpiri people, Western Desert, Northern Territory). Private collection

I recently found a video of the Australian Aboriginal artist Dorothy Napangardi at work: she is seated on the ground, sitting on top of the canvas, and carefully painting each line and dot. This process of working on a canvas has only existed for roughly about half of a century; before this point, Aboriginal artists would depict the ancient stories and symbols from the primordial Dreaming period on rock cave walls or in the dirt or sand. I’m reminded of how Navajo sandpaintings are somewhat similar in that regard, since they also are made on the floor. In fact, Jackson Pollock put his canvases on the floor because he was inspired by Navajo sandpaintings and their creation process. But despite the similarity that both artists paint on a canvas, Dorothy Napangardi is a reversal of Jackson Pollock: she is seated, collected and calm as she systematically works on creating lines and dots. This calm, reflective process also reflects Napangardi’s internal process. She said in 2002, “I really like painting. I really love doing dot paintings. While I’m doing my paintings, I always have my family in my mind, I have my country in my mind.”1

I love having this visual of Napangardi working from above the canvas, too, because it helps me to think about the aerial perspective that is taken by the Dreaming paintings of Aboriginal artists. These paintings are kind of like maps, in that they can reference the landscape, the experiences of primordial ancestors across the landscape, and primary plants and sources of food that thrive within the land. The painting “Yuparli (Bush Banana)” is a subject that Dorothy Napangardi depicted more than once (one such example is shown and above and another example). Christine Nichols explained in 2002:

It was in Alice Springs in 1987 that Napangardi began painting… She began to paint the bush banana, a symbiotic plant, winding vine-like around shrubs or small trees. Yuparli leaves are large and rather long. The first flower of the bush banana vine is known as Big Sister, while the second flower is Little Sister or the follower. Sometimes older bush bananas are cooked in the hot ashes to soften them up, otherwise they can be a bit crunchy. Young yuparli are tender and sweet and are prized bush ticker.”2

Dorothy Napangardi, detail of “Yuparli (Bush Banana),” 1993. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas (Australian, Warlpiri people, Western Desert, Northern Territory). Private collection

I wonder if the Big Sister and Little Sister names might have had special meaning for Dorothy Napangardi, since her half-sister Eunice was also a painter who depicted the Yuparli banana plant. Dorothy began painting in 1987, after Eunice had already begun to paint and earn an income through her art.3 Both of the women lived in Alice Springs and the subject of the banana plant is part of an imagery and story that has been handed down in their family. Eunice also painted the bush banana plant (see one example below) and sometimes these women painted banana plants in same year (both examples in this post are from 1993). I wonder how often the women thought of each other, perhaps thinking of their relationship as sisters, when they painted the banana plant and its flowers.

Eunice Napangardi, “Bush Banana Dreaming (Ipalu)” 1993. Acrylic on canvas, 15 3/4 x 20 in. (40 x 50.8 cm.)

1 Kathan Brown, “Dorothy Napangardi and Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art,” (San Francisco: Crown Point Newsletter, November 2004). Article available here:

2 “Yuparli (Bush Banana), 1993” (Seattle, Washington: Seattle Art Museum, October 3, 2020). Museum label.

3 Kathan Brown.


Ansel Adams, Structure, and Music

Ansel Adams. The Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. 1942. Image via Wikipedia, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

Earlier last week, I taught my students about Ansel Adams’s photography. In preparation for our class discussion, I watched this documentary on Ansel Adams from the Master Photographers series (1980). I learned while watching that Adams had trained to become a concert pianist but ultimately decided to become a photographer.

It was interesting to hear him discuss photography in comparison to music. In explaining the range of light and dark contrasts in his photographs, he made an interesting comparison to the piano and its division into octaves:

“It’s like the piano, you have 88 keys, you can go from the lowest to the highest, or you usually work within a few octaves. Oh there were some magnificent things, but they were just an octave or two” (10:35-10:49).

If Adams likes the structure provided by the piano as a tool for making music, then it makes sense to me that he would like the structure provided by the technology of photography and the camera as a device. This interest in structure also extends to how he perceives his photographic shots as a type of framework that is akin to a musical score. In this same interview, he said, “I’m guilty of creating a cliché which I use very often, because in actuality the negatives are like the composer’s score. All of the information is there. And then the print is the performance, see. So you interpret the score at the varying aesthetic emotional levels, but never far enough away to violate the essential concept” (13:23-13:48).

Even Adams’s own musical tastes tend toward those which have structure. In a 1984 interview with Milton Esterow, Adams agreed with how Esterow’s observation of how Adams has a preference for composers with a large structure, such as Beethoven, Bach, Chopin and Scriabin. Adams continued and said, “Yes, there’s some evidence of precision and structure, nothing amorphous. I don’t react to Debussy.”

Learning about Adams and his relationship to music has made me think of his black-and-white photographs in a new way. I’m reminded of the black and white colors that are used for piano keys, or the the black and white used for a printed musical score. The shiny gloss his photographs makes me think if the shine of grand piano or the elegant “concert black” attire at a classical performance. Even this 1958 short film of Adams playing the piano is in black and white, which complements his work so well. So now, even though Adams’s best-known photographs are those which depict the great outdoors, I like thinking about how his photographs can also remind me of something metaphysical and intangible, like music, or the indoor spaces of a symphonic hall.

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Braque’s “Homage to J. S. Bach”

Braque, "Homage to J S Bach," winter 1911-12. Oil on canvas, 21 1/4 x 28 3/4" (54 x 73 cm). Accessed 26 February 2021 at

Braque, “Homage to J S Bach,” winter 1911-12. Oil on canvas, 21 1/4 x 28 3/4″ (54 x 73 cm). Link to MoMa image


Last week one of my students selected to write about Georges Braque’s “Homage to J. S. Bach” for their weekly assignment. I think that this painting is clever in several different ways, including how the signature of Braque seems to also be a witty reference to the similarity between the artist’s last name and the last name of the famous Baroque composer.

Braque includes musical instrument or references to music ins several of his paintings, and he himself was a gifted musician who played the violin, flute and accordion. So it is unsurprising that he would create an homage to one of the greatest Western composers, who happened to be a personal favorite of Braque. And I think that Bach’s polyphonic musical compositions, which present dominant musical motifs at through different layers of instruments and voices, parallels that way that Cubist paintings present the same objects through a variety of fragmented perspectives. The various inventions of Bach also parallel how Braque sought to create variations of similar subjects throughout his career. The Philips Collection blog has a post, “From Bach to Braque,” which takes the analysis even further by pointing out that weaving together of voices in a Bach fugue gives a sense of structure, line, and architecture in Braque’s painting.

According to the MoMA website, Braque “thought musical instruments added a tactile dimension to the visual image: ‘The distinctive feature of the musical instrument as an object, he said, ‘is that it comes alive to the touch.'” Perhaps, as a painter, he felt a disconnect with his paintings because he didn’t physically touch them in the creation process, since he used a paint brush. In that way, music could bridge the gap of physicality. And I think that the musical subject matter adds an extra layer of experience that goes beyond the spatial explorations of Cubism, by adding visualization of the aural experience of listening to music.

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Making Damage an Advantage

Marcel Duchamp, "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)," 1915-1923. Oil, varnish, lead foil, lead wire, and dust on two glass panels, 9 feet 1 1/4 inches × 70 inches × 3 3/8 inches (277.5 × 177.8 × 8.6 cm)

Marcel Duchamp, “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass),” 1915-1923. Oil, varnish, lead foil, lead wire, and dust on two glass panels, 9 feet 1 1/4 inches × 70 inches × 3 3/8 inches (277.5 × 177.8 × 8.6 cm)

Last week, some of my students and I were discussing Duchamp’s readymades. One student mentioned something to the effect of, “Well, I wouldn’t be able to just march up to a museum and hand them a broken window and expect them to accept it as a work of art.” I chuckled a bit at that comment, since Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (also called The Large Glass) is made of large panes of cracked glass. The glass wasn’t broken initially, but it cracked in transit accidentally after an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1926-27.

Luckily for Duchamp, he found that the broken glass helped to complete the work of art. Previously, he had declared that the art was “definitively unfinished,” but then later determined the work of art to be complete after he pieced the glass panes back together. The cracks remind me of the delicacy of a bride’s veil. You can read more about the different forms in this object both here and here.

It is interesting to me how this accidental damage was used to help complete the work of art, and even become a feature that is celebrated as part of the aesthetic. This is different than the slashed canvases of Lucio Fontana, since those slashes were intentionally made by the artist as part of the original conception of the object.

In contrast to this accidental damage, I have blogged previously about art that is damaged intentionally, often as a result of attack. In addition, there are countless examples of works of art that have been damaged by accident, too, such as the boy who tripped in a museum in 2015, the Cairo Museum workers who accidentally knocked off King Tut’s beard (and then infarmously tried to glue it back on), and the $40 million painting by Picasso that Steve Wynn accidentally punctured with his elbow. In these instances, however, the works of art are restored to give a semblance of their original appearance; the damage isn’t celebrated from an aesthetic standpoint.

Duchamp’s cracked The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even reminds me of “biography” of a work of art – the concept that objects have lives of their own. The broken glass is a reminder of the fateful trip that the object took after the exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum – and it was the only time this work of art was displayed in a temporary exhibition! Interestingly, though, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which permanently houses The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, is interested in keeping the work of art in a more timeless and historicized space. The museum website proudly declares that the object is exhibited in the same space that Duchamp chose for it over half a century ago, when The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even was acquired by the museum in 1953. In a way, perhaps this static display counteracts the sense of a living “biography” that is suggested by the object itself.

Do you know of other works of art that were accidentally damaged, and then this damage was incorporated into the finished work of art? Of course, I’m thinking of situations that are more extreme than the “happy little accidents” that Bob Ross talks about in his painting show. If you know of anything, please share!


Frank Sinatra’s Paintings

I read recently that the Renaissance sculptor Benvenuto Cellini reminded Tony Bennett so much of Frank Sinatra that Tony once gave Frank a copy of The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini as a birthday gift. I scoffed and chuckled a little bit when learning this, since Cellini had a flair for extreme drama. However, Tony said that he admired how “Benvenuto would draw his sword and battle every hypocrite and phony who stood in the way of truth,” and it is this aspect of Cellini that reminded him of Sinatra.And although Tony Bennett wrote that he was thinking of Frank Sinatra’s character when he made this gift, this anecdote made me wonder if Frank had more direct connections to the world of visual art. And he does!

The title of this post actually has dual meaning, since Frank Sinatra had a collection of paintings and also was a painter himself! I haven’t been able to find information on his personal art collection (or identify the painters/paintings shown in the Getty photograph linked above), so unfortunately I can’t explore his connection to art as a collector. If anyone knows information about Sinatra’s collection or his collecting habits, please share!

Frank Sinatra in his studio, n.d.

Frank Sinatra in his studio with granddaughter Amanda (left, n.d.), display of Frank Sinatra’s art at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles (right)

What I have been able to learn, however, is more about Frank Sinatra’s personal interest in oil painting; this was a hobby that he maintained for more than forty years! Some of Frank Sinatra’s paintings and memorabilia are available for sale on a website that is maintained by a collector, and other paintings are on public display at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles (shown in the image above). I also came across a Telegraph article from 2009 which explains how one of Frank’s paintings is believed to have been painted in 1957, during the artist’s difficult divorce from the actress Ava Gardner. The painting is a self-portrait of the artist as a melancholic clown (see below), and it was a subject that he painted again and again and again (and these links are just a few examples!).

Clown painting by Frank Sinatra, c. 1957. Oil on canvas

Clown painting by Frank Sinatra, c. 1957. Oil on canvas

No doubt when Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 song “Send In the Clowns” was covered by Frank that same year, this song must have had very special meaning for Frank due to his relationship with Ava and also his clown paintings from the previous decade and a half. In fact, Frank once prefaced his performance of this song with an explanation that this is a breakup song between two adults, and I can’t help but think that Frank pulled from his own experiences with breakups to convey the sentiment of the song. I have a feeling that he thought about his self-portraits as a clown while he sang.

Frank didn’t just create representational art, however. In fact, most of his paintings were heavily, heavily influenced by painters of the mid-20th century, especially the Abstract Expressionists. I recently came across the book A Man and His Art: Frank Sinatra with a forward written by his daughter Tina Sinatra. The book mostly includes color plates of Frank’s paintings, and it’s fun to play a guessing game and figure out what artist and/or painting might have served as inspiration for Frank’s art. For example, easy to see how this painting below is reminiscent of Ellsworth Kelly’s art, for example. The different gradients of opacity and transparency of the pigment remind me a little bit of Mark Rothko.

Frank Sinatra, "Summer Wind," c. 1980s.

Frank Sinatra, “Summer Wind,” c. 1980s.

And this bold painting of a geometric shape, which I quite like, reminds me of Frank Stella:

Frank SInatra, Untitled, 1989. 57" x 47", the Desert Hospital, Palm Springs, California

Frank SInatra, Untitled, 1989. 57″ x 47″, the Desert Hospital, Palm Springs, California

When flipping through A Man and His Art, I also notice paintings that reminded me of Josef Albers, Robert Motherwell, and Franz Klein. I also read a short online article that Robert Mangold’s art also served as an inspiration for Sinatra. And while, like Sinatra, I admire all of these 20th-century artists, I don’t think that Sinatra’s art rivaled these other painters. I think some of his paintings are quite terrible, actually, not because it is derivative of another source but that the colors seem muddied and the brushwork is sloppy.

Some of Frank’s art seems more unique to me (although it could just be that I am not familiar with the original source!). Even though I don’t think that Frank was a fabulous painter, but I do really like this one, especially because of the dynamic shapes and lines used to create the stems and leaves of the flowers:

Frank Sinatra, Untitled, 1989. 38" x 42", collection of Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra, Untitled, 1989. 38″ x 42″, collection of Frank Sinatra

So looking at these paintings by Frank Sinatra, many of which are clearly derivative of other painters’ styles, makes me reflect back on Tony Bennett’s quote about how he thinks of Frank Sinatra as someone who “would…battle every hypocrite and phony who stood in the way of truth.” I don’t think that Frank saw himself as a “phony” when he heavily took inspiration from other artists, both in painting and also in singing. Tina Sinatra makes an interesting point that her dad “was the first to admit that he mimics what he’s seen, but, just as with music, it becomes Frank Sinatra’s because he stylizes it.”

I like this idea, because I like to think about how Frank Sinatra learned about the potential of crooning and singing softly into a microphone from his slightly-older predecessor Bing Crosby. And Frank took those basic aspects of family-man Crosby’s singing approach and then turned crooning into something sultry. Similarly, since Frank picked up Abstract Expressionism later on in life (especially in the 1980s, after the height of Abstract Expressionism ), he looked to visual art “predecessors” to explore the potential of visual expression. Although I still prefer the Abstract Expressionists over the paintings made by Frank Sinatra (I’m glad you didn’t quit your day job, Frank!), I can see how his work (like by combining the aesthetic of Ellsworth Kelly and Mark Rothko in a single painting) creates something new.

What do you think of Frank Sinatra’s art? Does his art remind you of his music?

1 Tony Bennett, “Sinatra” in Sinatra at 100 in LIFE special edition by Robert Sullivan and editors of LIFE, vol. 15, no. 18, November 27, 2015, p. 9. 

2 Tina Sinatra, A Man and His Art: Frank Sinatra (New York: Random House, Inc., 1991), ix.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.