For more than 70 years, New York has been the cradle of avant-garde and artistic experimentation. It was there where movements such as abstract expressionism, pop art, conceptual art, Fluxus, minimalism, performance and street art, among others, had their germ and/or main development. Since then, museums, critics, art historians, gallery owners, collectors, and other cultural agents around the world have set their sights on the Big Apple. However, for the same amount of time in that city, an artist and art teacher remained faithful to figurative painting. His name is Jack Faragasso and many credit him with the not inconsiderable merit of being one of the main people responsible for continuing the teachings of traditional realistic representation, which dates back to the founding of the French Academy (1648). But going against the current is not an easy task since the chances of failure are even higher than any success that might be achieved.
Born on January 23, 1929, Faragasso’s career can be traced as an unusual sketch, starting from some unfortunate events until reaching the main facts that constitute his accomplishment as one of the pivotal names of New York culture.
It all started when he was only four years old, as a result of a traffic accident, which caused him to fracture both legs. So being bedridden, his family brought him coloring books and sketch pads and thus discovered his vocation.
After finishing his secondary education he joined the army. Two years after his discharge, he enrolled in the Art Students League of New York, in the painting and drawing classes of Frank J. Reilly. This renowned teacher also instructed students in the art of photography as a way to obtain various reference material for their paintings. That is why, in his apartment on 46th Street, Faragasso photographed (in multiple poses) an unknown Bettie Page, who worked as a model.
Despite his reputation as a teacher and visual artist, Frank J. Reilly was in the right place at the wrong time. His teaching of painting and figurative drawing, for which he had created his own system, was considered anachronistic in an artistic circuit devoted to the avant-garde art. For this reason, he decided to resign and found his own school, the Frank J. Reilly School of Art. Faragasso, who completed his training with frequent visits to museums in Europe and the United States to admire the works of the great masters, continued to attend Reilly’s classes. After the death of his professor, he assumed his replacement and was even appointed as the new director of the art school, but a year later, different circumstances caused its final closure. As a result of this, he managed to return to the Art Students League, this time as a teacher. There, for the next 48 years, he became the reference teacher of the Reilly method, to which he added his own principles.
Going back to the 1950’s, when he was still a young student, the same circumstances that led to the resignation of his former teacher prevented Faragasso from having his works exhibited in the conventional art circuit. For that reason, he managed to deliver part of his art in the publishing market, where it was very well received. His work primarily spanned the genres of science fiction and gothic romance. For over 30 years, he produced around 200 illustrations for works by classic authors such as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne and War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, and also works by contemporary authors such as The Explorers (1954) by Cyril M. Kornbluth, Sword of the Dawn by Michael Moorcock (1968) and Empire of the Atom (1970) by A. E. van Vogt.
As an author, Faragasso wrote his own art teaching books, his bestseller The Student’s Guide to Painting (1979), and Mastering Drawing the Human Figure from Life, Memory, Imagination (1998). To these were added more recent titles such as The Early Photographs of Bettie Page (2013), which contains the photo shoot of the Queen of the Pinups and Poems of Love … and Other Thoughts (2018), his first illustrated poetry book.
Over time his oil and gouache paintings begin to be exhibited more frequently, and now are part of important public and private collections. His inexhaustible skill as an artist is reflected in his still life, portraits, figures and landscapes, especially those of Woodstock and New York City. In his “Artist’s Statement” that appears on his official website, he writes that his paintings in Central Park are distinguished from others by “the delicate breaking up of color into many nuances, the drawing, the balancing of the masses and the mood obtained”.
In recent years, his work has also been recognized through numerous tributes. Among them are the bust that Dr. Gregory Belok commissioned to the sculptor David Tumblety, which remains on display in the Art Students League, where Faragasso was appointed Instructor Emeritus, and a short directed by Tumblety himself.
At 91 years old, as he prepares for the release of the expanded edition of The Student’s Guide to Painting in September, this legendary artist is actively working on his autobiography. In his prolific career, Jack Faragasso has managed to overcome the difficulties that came his way and thanks to this, he was able to create a brilliant body of work that continues to be relevant and influential today. While his outstanding realistic representational artworks continue to gain adherents, his detailed bibliography to learn drawing and painting from home is sure to obtain a large number of new readers in times of confinement. All this invites us to think that perhaps it is not just a twist of fate, but to recognize that even during the most avant-garde New York, Faragasso was always ahead of his time.
What is art for you?
Art for me is the fulfillment of my potential, the reason why I was born. Art is therapeutic if it is logical and beautiful, for it will harmonize all the systems and functions of mind and body. Ugliness and discord will upset our well-ordered mind and body and produce illnesses of mind and body, which in turn will affect society. So one can predict the future by looking and listening of what is being created. The ancient Greeks had it right, “who the gods would destroy they first make mad”. As for me, art is an outlet for the creative processes of the human body.
What sets the Frank J. Reilly system of drawing and painting apart from other art systems and what principles did you add to them?
Here for the first time you will read the statement anywhere, “Mr. Reilly has revolutionized the teaching of drawing and painting!”. Why? Because before him, drawing was taught by the best artist to copy a model or a cast on the wall. Usually there was a heavy emphasis on anatomy since everyone wanted to draw like Michelangelo. Da Vinci cautioned against overdoing anatomy, as the figures would look like a sack of potatoes. The unity of the figure was lost and Mr. Reilly devised a simple abstract figure based on six lines. These six lines contain all the elements of good drawing such as form, line, light and shade, hard and soft edges etc. etc. These are fully explained in my drawing book Mastering Drawing the Human Figure From Life, Memory, Imagination. Mr. Reilly said all these elements should be drawn within the concept of “action” and “growth”. To this I added the concept of “empathy”. This is when the student should imagine he/she is the model or subject and “feel” the pose, emphasizing all or eliminating that which makes for a more lifelike drawing.
Why do you think that The Student’s Guide to Painting has become the finest painting instruction book? What will the revised and expanded edition that Dover Publications will release on September include?
My book on painting has been successful because it is an example of clear thinking. All terms are defined so the student knows exactly what they mean. The text is arranged to be clear and understandable, no elaborate personal interpretations as with other authors or books. The new updated and edited version will contain much new information on the painting of the figure in sunlight and other outdoor effects as well as painting the many different types of complexions of the human race.
What is your best memory about the legendary Bettie Page photo shoot?
My best memory about the Bettie Page photo shoot was how utterly natural she appeared in her nudity. She sought to give you the best pose that she was capable of thereby helping the student when they would run out of ideas.
Do you consider the photos that you took of models only like the first step of a portrait painting or an artwork in and of themselves?
Of course the photos are the first step in the thinking of portraits, but I must say in all modesty that some of my photographs could be considered works of art.
Do you have another photo shoots that you would like to release?
Other memorable photo shoots that I did were of Steve Holland (one of the most well known best models at the time) My artwork of Steve was used on many book covers in the sci-fi and romance genres. I also photographed Shere Hite who was a model at the time in NYC. My paintings of her were used on romance novels. I also photographed them together. They modeled for me right in my studio in NYC. Shere went on to be quite famous.
What were the biggest difficulties you faced as an artist and teacher of representative art when avant-garde art was the boom in New York?
The biggest difficulty faced in that period was that what we were doing was not fine art and was ridiculed. The reference to Mr. Frank DuMond, instructor at the league for 50 years, served concerning the avant-garde movement, “wait 30 years and realism will return”. It was to a degree. The new movements mean to me that they are meaningless, and have been taken over the people who are manipulating the market. Therefore the art market is manipulated.
How can you describe your career as a teacher in the Art Student League of NY? Who do you think were your best students?
I spent 48 years teaching at the Art Students League and never got tired or bored. It was interesting to see students coming in who couldn’t do anything and after 3 years of training became quite competent. “As we teach we learn” is quite true. I was always learning. It is hard to say who were my best students, but the names that come to my mind are Bill Graf, Matthew Bober, y Christopher Gallego. There were many more!
You illustrated a lot of classic book covers but you also worked with the most important living science-fiction writers of that time. Do you have any story to share about your experiences working for them or for others writers of that era?
I have no stories to share since I never met any of the authors of the books I did covers for. The art directors simply gave me a copy of the book or a page from the book and said “bring me in some sketches”. Sometimes they gave me a one page synopsis. Incidentally many of these authors became well known over the years.
You produced a lot of fine art but the paperback book covers that you created are also considered highlights. Do you think there’s any difference between them in terms of aesthetic value?
In terms of aesthetic value, no. Different subject matters would have a different aesthetic value. I have always tried to make my paintings have feeling; hoping the spectator would grasp it.
What do you think a book cover illustration must have to be considered an artwork rather than a decorative part of a literary work?
In order for an illustration to be considered true artwork it must have three things. It must attract, hold attention and have an air of mystery.
Two years ago you released your first poetry book Poems of Love… and Other Thoughts which include your own illustrations. How was the creative process of this work?
There was no specific creative process that I followed when putting together my poetry book, Poems of love… and other thoughts. The back cover describes how I suddenly became inspired and when inspired, I wrote. what caused the inspiration will have to wait for my autobiography. It would be very difficult to describe 90 years of life in just a few paragraphs. As i wrote the poems, I decided I needed to have a type of drawing to go with the mystical thoughts. During lunchtime, I would go to McDonald’s and have a tea. Then I would sit down, relax and started scribbling. Eventually I could find the germ of an idea and I would elaborate on it to make the drawing. I used a ballpoint pen on McDonald’s napkins since they had an unlimited supply of them there. Eventually I had a lot of drawings. I then matched the drawings with the poems.
What can you tell me about your autobiography?
Many people have asked me about doing an autobiography, and I finally decided to do it. I started it describing my descent into the life and conditions from my earliest childhood memories and I’m working up to the present day. It will take quite some time to complete my autobiography up to the age of 91, but once it is completed, I think people will find it to be very surprising and interesting to say the least!