First, a confession: I sort of like Botero. I know this isn’t cool, but I visited Museo Botero when I was in Bogotá a few years ago and was charmed. I’m not saying he’s Rembrandt. Nor have I devoted much time or energy to thinking about his peculiar oeuvre. But the work gives me pleasure.
I suppose what people dislike about Botero is the quality of stylized caricature. The work feels a little cartoonish. But this is exactly what is pleasurable. While the work often cites a high-art influence, there is always a low-art undercurrent. You can imagine seeing his images in the pages of the New Yorker or even Mad Magazine.
from MAUS, by Art Spiegelman
But what is wrong with low-art? Sometimes I’d rather look at a cartoon by Art Spiegelman than a painting by Robert Motherwell. This is especially true when things get political. I like Motherwell’s “Elegies” as paintings, but they don’t make me think along political lines. Philip Guston’s Klan and Poor Richard pictures, on the other hand, have a populist directness that suits the subject.
Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic #34, 1954
Philip Guston, Edge of Town, 1969
There have been a number of attempts to translate the horrific images of Abu Ghraib into art. Perhaps the most notable example has been Richard Serra. I’m a huge fan of Serra, but this political work falls flat. It doesn’t carry one once of the power of the rest of his work.
Richard Serra, Abu Ghraib, 2004
But Botero is a different matter. His Abu Ghraib images are strinking. Part of the reason is that they are just so odd. What are these plump caricatures doing being tortured? Why are these gruesome scenes being handled with such delicate draftsmanship? This weirdness makes the work all the more powerful. Much like Spiegelman’s Maus, the peculiar brew of low-art and serious subject matter is chilling. It is as though Norman Rockwell merged with Leon Golub.
Another reason they are successful is because the medium (traditional drawing and painting) is so far removed from the source material (crude photographs). Antonin Kratochvil has recently executed a series of staged photographs based on Abu Ghraib. The pictures seem unnecessary. The original photographs are perhaps the most powerful images of my lifetime. There isn’t a need to fabricate more photographs on the subject. But Botero’s refined paintings and drawings are so vastly different that I think they have a place.