Summary of Rudy Sparkuhl’s Thesis
Concordia University, Montreal, 1977
Summary Compiled by Holly Granken
Title: At the All-Nite Cafe: Some Personal Observations on Photo Realism and Related Matters by Rudy Sparkuhl, April 1977
Rudy Sparkuhl has been primarily a photo realist, creating paintings as seen through his own personal involvement and philosophical interpretation in a high realism style. Rudy asks us, does the non-interpretive nature of photo realism reveal the visual potential of common objects/scenes, therefore giving them value?
Rudy is drawn to photography because the viewfinder helps him compose intuitively. Several years ago, Rudy participated in a talk at Westland Gallery and spoke on his use of the viewfinder to create compelling compositions and reminded artists to carefully consider the edges. To making a photo realistic painting, Sparkuhl first takes photographs with his Zenit 35mm camera. He then prints out 5x7s, crops the photo if necessary and acquires a suitable stretcher. He makes a line drawing of the photo on the canvas, then using the photo as a guide, finishes the work using acrylic and various brushes.
Thesis synopsis Part I: Rudy describes his journey towards photorealism
No great childhood event sparked Rudy’s desire to be an artist – he just was. He was driven in part to prove himself as an artist to others and is fascinated by the ability to create a world through painting. Rudy is influenced by the necessity to include details when creating a world in literature, applying this idea to painting. Part of the interest lies in comparing the details of the fictional world to those of real life. Because of this, Sparkuhl does not deal with painterly surfaces, as the physicality of paint can ruin the illusion, he states.
Beginning in 1967, Rudy was influenced by comic books, illustrations, and book covers. Artists with strong literary ties like Bosch, David, and Dali were the ones he first admired. In his thesis, he destructs Formalism because it sees the subject of a work merely as a means to make a painting, and according to his experience, focuses on what is wrong with a painting.
Rudy is attracted to mechanical items or things in various states of decay. He utilises a limited colour palette that features umbers and blues. In 1971, he did renaissance inspired fantasy landscapes. He wanted to create a beautiful and decorative strangeness. In 1972 he reached a dead end but found new inspiration through a book about Magritte and began to see how he could create strangeness using modern imagery. This is when he met fellow artist, Bob Montgomery, who shared his interest in Magritte and figurative art. In 1973 he produced both large drawings and paintings based on life studies in a style influenced by Magritte.
While driving one day, Rudy spotted a group of oil refineries along the horizon. He went back later to photograph them, and they became the source of imagery for his first photo realistic painting. Sparkuhl says that meeting Bob Montgomery, travelling to New York City, and seeing a particular article in Art in America are largely responsible for the direction his work.
The All Nite Café, the title of Rudy’s thesis, is a poem and a real place that Sparkuhl encountered on a trip to Boston in March 1975. Rudy enjoyed riding a bus through the night, because it was then that his thoughts heightened to a point where great truths were accessible. After a day touring museums on this Boston trip, looking at Madonna’s and Colonial portraits, he found the Morris Louis exhibition at the Boston Museum of Art. When he first encountered other photo realistic works, he felt they were “antithetical to the struggle for meaning in art.” It felt like cheating. But at this show he realised that paintings should be used for a variety of purposes, rather than just analysed to death. The value of a painting lies in the personal pleasure, enlightenment, or insight in can provide. All visual events can be a source of interest and subject matter.
Part II: Why Photorealism?
Sparkuhl doesn’t think that one should have to dedicate their whole life to art to have an opinion of it, or an appreciation for it. Part of his belief system as an artist is to question the validity of art criticism.
In this portion of his thesis, Sparkuhl explains why he utilises photographs in his work. It’s a drawing aid, as he found drawing from photographs to be easier than from life. It eliminates a model that move and shifts during a session and freezes light, motion, and gesture. The subject never changes, providing unlimited time to work which appealed to Sparkuhl. The resulting image is more exact rather than referential. A photograph can reveal patterns and shapes that may otherwise be missed in the moment. A camera can replace a sketch book in terms of content accurately copied from a scene. The basic difference between Photo Realism and other realisms is that the Photo Realist sacrifices a large part of personal content in establishing a more direct and objective relationship with the subject.
So why paint if the photo itself contains all the vital info you need for an image? Sparkuhl says that photographs are passive in the way they record ordinary situations. Everyone can take a photo (to differing levels of technical proficiency), but the paintings are active in that every mark made is a conscious decision of the artist. Even if it is a copy of a photo, a painting is a work of fiction, making us see something that is not actually there.
Rudy had no problem with the somewhat garnish colours the paintings require due to the use of kodachrome film. The film’s colours were determined by market research, rather than accuracy, yet the colour of our clothes, houses, cars, and food are also determined by market research, therefore the film is quite faithful to its subject. Much of his subject matter is the common/shared experience. One doesn’t expect a painting to be a recording, lacking a personal relationship with its creator. It brings attention to things that are so familiar, we no longer even see them.
Summary of Rudy Sparkuhl’s Thesis