Monday, July 29, 2013

Man in a Golden Helmet

For centuries, the Man With the Golden Helmet was treasured as a Rembrandt masterpiece. But there were questions. Something was wrong about the signature, and the paint was layered thicker than Rembrandt's normal style. In 1985, experts from the Rembrandt Research Project determined that it was not actually by Rembrandt, but was probably by one of his students. Marty O'Connor painted the Minifig in the Golden Helmet.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Time Transfixed

Belgian surrealist René Magritte painted Time Transfixed (here in LEGO by Uli Myer) in 1938 for his patron Edward James. In Magritte's description of the painting, he wrote "I decided to paint the image of a locomotive . . . In order for its mystery to be evoked, another immediately familiar image without mystery—the image of a dining room fireplace—was joined." Time Transfixed can be seen at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Art of War contest

You be the artist! The Art of War contest challenges you to depict a violent scene in an artistic and stylized way. The contest sponsors point you to the movie Hero as an example.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Architecture Studio

Set 21050, Architecture Studio is a new official LEGO set that encourages you to explore design and architecture. The fact that it uses all white bricks reminds me very much of Olafur Eliasson's Collectivity Project, that I'll have to feature here sometime soon. Anyway, LEGO is teaming up with Barnes & Noble bookstores for a series of launch events at 450 different bookstores this weekend. Follow the link to find an event near you. From the press release:
The LEGO Architecture Studio event will feature local architecture experts discussing and demonstrating the parameters and design process in architecture using LEGO bricks to educate and inspire the hands-on building that follows. Participants will have the opportunity to reference the LEGO 250 guide book, experiment and create original architectural designs with more than 1,200 monochromatic building pieces, and learn a few architectural concepts such as scale, mass and density, symmetry, modules and repetition, space and section and surface.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

LEGO as Art, a paper by Roy Cook

Roy Cook is both a professor of philosophy who has done work on art and aesthetics and also an AFOL and former LEGO Ambassador. I've previously noted his Brothers-Brick essay on Flawed visions in defining LEGO as art. I've done some looking around and found the he subsequently wrote a longer piece LEGO as Art in which he further develops and expands upon the themes from the shorter Brothers-Brick essay. An excerpt from this paper appeared in the book the Cult of LEGO, but I highly recommend that you read the whole thing on the Twinlug site. It's not too long and very thought provoking. Some highlights:

Roy first raises the question of what is art. He dismisses what he calls the 'institutional definition' - that art is that which is accepted by museums and other institutions, or produced by 'legitimate' artists. He also dismisses identifying LEGO creations as art simply because they resemble recognized art forms of sculpture and mosaic. Instead he defines three criteria for a work be called 'art.' It must have some form, that is, there must be some excellence of technique in the creation. It must have some content, it must convey some message or depict some emotion (though this content may be very hard to define, and this is complicated by the fact that a message involves both the sender and receiver, and so the creator of the artwork may be expressing a message that the viewer may not get). It must also have some context, that is, it must relate to some larger artistic movement and understanding. It is this last criterion that is the most problematic, in that we don't have a real mental framework to evaluate LEGO creations as artworks in relation to others. He notes that this is true of all new artistic forms. If you were to make a painting, we could relate this to the context of other paintings. But when photography was first developed some people rejected it as art because of lack of context. He notes that the same was true of film and the novel when they appeared, and now is true of 'LEGO art'.

Roy also notes the barriers to acceptance because LEGO is a toy. Most people do not have a mental framework to evaluate LEGO as art, but they do have a framework to evaluate it as a toy. And therefore they may be dismissive of the possibility of LEGO art in general. I've noted this, for instance, in a New York Times review of a Nathan Sawaya show. The reviewer was very dismissive of the show simply on the basis of the medium, and never really evaluated the works themselves.

To me the heart of Roy's paper comes at the end. We need to develop the context to discuss LEGO art, and he asks a series of questions:
(a) Is LEGO art merely a sub-category of sculpture, oran independent art form?
(b) What, if anything, follows from the fact that LEGO is a mass art form (like comics, film, and television), that is, it is a medium that is easily accessed and understood by the general, untutored public?
(c) Does the modification of pieces, or the use of ‘clone’ bricks, inherently impede the artistic process?
(d) Are some building ‘themes’ within the LEGO community more conducive to creating art than others?
(e) What impact, if any, does the fact that LEGO is intended as a children’s toy have on the proper interpretion of LEGO artwork?
If I could be so bold to add a couple of questions of my own:
(f) What is the significance of the fact that any LEGO creation is a combination of many small pieces? Is there a relationship to other art forms like collage, pointillist paintings, mosaics or sculptures that are assemblages of found objects?
(g) Special pieces aside, LEGO is made up of a lot of right angles. Are there any particular challenges or opportunities for artistic expression that come from the geometric constraints of LEGO building?

What do you think? What are the rules for LEGO art? If anything, I hope that this blog can help spur that conversation.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


Nathan Sawaya's signature piece is probably his work Yellow. In his description he writes:
Probably my best-known piece. Yellow always draws a lot of attention on the gallery floor, from adults as well as children. Why? I think we grown-ups appreciate how cathartic 'opening oneself up to the world' can be for our souls. And the kids? Probably because yellow guts spilling onto the floor looks cool. For me, this piece is about the metamorphosis I have been through on my journeys.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Great Wave off Kanagawa

The Great Wave off Kanagawa is the most famous work by Japanese artist Hokusai, perhaps the most famous Japanese work overall. This is a woodblock print, where the image was carved out of a cherry wood plank, then ink is applied and it is pressed to paper. This image was made in the early 1830's as part of a series by Hokusai that all featured Mount Fuji, sometimes dominating the scene and others, as here, in the background. It falls into the genre of Japanese art called Ukiyo-e, or 'images of the floating world.' Here are LEGO renditions by Nathan Sawaya and Arthur Gugick.

Friday, July 19, 2013


German artist Jan Vormann started by fitting some LEGO bricks into a cracked wall while at an art festival in Bocchignano, Italy, and a movement was born. According to his manifesto ...
... Dispatchwork aims to seal fissures in broken walls worldwide, completing the material compilation in urban constructing and adding color to the urban greyscales, by inserting a very basic construction-material:Plastic Construction Bricks (PCBs)...
... Dispatchwork does not defy deterioration. Rather, it aims to emphasize transitoriness as a chance for the construction and reconstruction of our environments. Adapting to various cities, the project infiltrates walls of cultural heritage, historic facades, fortifications and yet many more less spectacular corners as a colorful repair of shabby walls within our shared spaces.
Dispatchwork contradicts and satirizes the superimposed seriosity of constructions in the cityscape. ... The project also aims to put the focus on the playful, hands-on aspects of creation in our daily lives, and further, on the possibilities for participation to construe and design our own reality.
In a very public and collaborative art project, Jan has traveled the world filling in gaps and cracks with LEGO bricks, often rebuilding crumbled sections of walls and buildings. In many places he has been invited by museums to organize workshops where he takes teams of kids of all ages out to bring color to their city. And he's inspired others. You can organize your own urban Legoization project. Check out his forum to meet up with others to gather in your city, with projects found on six different continents. Here are just four examples, from Tel Aviv, New York City, Berlin, and the Great Wall of China.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Lantern Festival in Nantou

I'm not sure whether to label Luis' Lantern Festival in Nantou as an original artwork or a LEGO rendition of something else. It's based on the logo of the annual Taiwan festival, but IMO it transcends the original to become something quite special. BTW, if you want to learn more about the Lantern Festival, check out my other blog GodBricks.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn

Ai Weiwei is an iconoclastic artist from China. He took this quite literally in his 1995 performance piece, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, captured as a series of three photographs (here in LEGO by Michael Torres). I love the interplay of four different media here - a LEGO sculpture of a set of photographs of a performance involving pottery. Now to come full circle we really need to get Michael Torres to take a photo of himself dropping his LEGO model.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Comic-Con panel

Via BrickNerd - This Saturday at Comic-Con International in San Diego, there will be a panel discussion, LEGO as an Art Form:
BrickJournal presents a unique look into how artists are using LEGO bricks to construct amazing works of art and how building with the toy has gained popularity among adult artists worldwide. Jump into the world of LEGO-built art by joining top builders Joe Meno (BrickJournal), Nathan Sawaya (BrickArtist), Brandon Griffith (BrickStuds), and Tommy Williamson (BrickNerd) as they explain how they take an idea from conception to design and build amazing art completely made of LEGO bricks.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp

For today's 407th birthday of Rembrandt (thanks, Google doodle), let's see The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, here in LEGO by McBricker. This painting was a commissioned work of a real event. Dissections of human cadavers were strictly controlled in seventeenth century Amsterdam. Once a year the Amsterdam guild of surgeons would host a dissection, directed by Dr. Tulp, the city anatomist. Doctors and medical students would pay to attend Dr. Tulp's lectures and demonstrations. The cadaver was that of an executed criminal. This painting depicts the dissection of Aris Kindt on January 16, 1632. The original is found either at the Mauritshuis in the Hague or the Rembrandthuis in Amsterdam - it's listed on the websites of both museums. I'm assuming it moved from one to the other and one of the websites was not updated.

And for fun, here's another version by Patxidelpamil.

BTW, I'm adding a new tag 'parody' for this last image. I realize that some might say that any LEGO rendition of another work is a parody, but I'm meaning those LEGO versions meant for obvious humorous effect.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

In defense of copying - LEGO renditions of other artworks

In yesterday's post I quoted extensively from an essay by Roy Cook, and in one of his points he critiqued the artistic merit of making LEGO renditions of recognized artworks. While I agree with him that making a copy of great art does not mean that you are therefore making great art yourself, I do think that there are three good reasons for making LEGO renditions of great art:

Pedagogy - for the creator

One reason to copy other artwork is in order to learn from it. Centuries ago, apprentice painters would perform a number of tasks in their master's workshop, including copying the master's paintings. Even today you could go to many museums and see someone standing at an easel, painting their own rendition of the work on the wall. By doing this you are learning from the master, trying to reproduce the techniques of the original. Now, I'm not saying that in clicking LEGO bricks together you are learning the brush-strokes of the original (I suppose you could try to rebuild some of the work of Nathan Sawaya or something). However, as you spend time with the original work, you are learning more about it. For instance, if you sat down and copied Shakespeare's plays with a pencil and paper you'd end up memorizing large chunks. In a broader sense, you are learning about how the original artist composed the painting, color choices, etc. I really think that Moody was doing this in copying Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte that I recently blogged.

Pedagogy - for the viewer

There are a lot of people who shy away from great art. They might think it's too highbrow, or too boring, or whatever. They'd rather die than be dragged to an art museum. Show them a LEGO rendition, OTOH, and they may find it quite fun. They may even be inspired to learn more about the original. The same sort of thing applies to kids. They may not have some of the strong biases against Art, but still they might find it easier to enter into the area through a medium they understand - LEGO. This is going to apply to a lot of the 'LEGO renditions of other art' that I feature here. I see this as a fun way to learn something about art, and perhaps impact people who would never read a straight art blog.

Original art

Sometimes a copy of a great artwork can itself be a great artwork. Often this is done by transforming the original, and forcing us to look at it in a different way. A great example of this is Monet's series of paintings of the Rouen Cathedral. You start with the original art, the cathedral itself, and transform it into something new, using a different medium, the impressionist paintings. Indeed you could say that any art that is drawn on some real thing, say a landscape or a portrait, is a copy. But the artist chooses the subject matter, and how to portray it in a meaningful way. There are many LEGO renditions of other art that do this, by transforming the original into the medium of plastic bricks. I would say that Veynom's Cube of Mondrian, and Sawaya's American Gothic that I've recently blogged both do this, in each case by taking the original two-dimensional work and bringing it into three dimensions.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Essay by Roy Cook: Flawed visions in defining LEGO as art

Five years ago, Roy Cook, who is both a LEGO Ambassador and a university professor who teaches aesthetics, posted a very interesting essay on the Brothers-Brick, Flawed visions in defining LEGO as art. You should definitely read the whole thing, including the very interesting and often very thoughtful 75 (!) comments that accompany the article. Here, though, are some key excerpts:
... in order to be an artwork, a LEGO creation needs to incorporate three elements:
Form: (the creation has to display some minimum of building skill)
Content: (the creation has to express a message, emotion, etc.)
Context: (the creation has to be situated in a larger historical or traditional context)
The problem, more generally, is that we, as a community, equate LEGO artworks with LEGO creations that resemble other art forms. Thus LEGO mosaics, LEGO sculptures, and perhaps LEGO vignettes get grouped under the technical term ‘Art’, regardless of whether they actually satisfy the criteria for being artworks.
After critiquing a museum event that recreated a famous painting as a LEGO mosaic, he notes:
Nevertheless, identifying LEGO art with LEGO creations that resemble artworks in other media does little to advance appreciation of LEGO as a unique art form.
In response to the work of the Little Artists (who I'll get around to blogging sometime soon), Roy notes:
Again, we have the idea that LEGO artworks, and in particular, great LEGO artworks, are those LEGO creations that resemble (or, in this case, are flat-out authorized forgeries of) great artworks in other art forms.
What we have yet to grasp, as a group (and as a society as a whole), is that LEGO is an artistic medium unto itself. LEGO creations need to resemble neither great paintings nor great sculptures in order to be great artworks.
Instead of mindlessly categorizing particular LEGO creations as artworks merely because they vaguely resemble masterpieces in other art forms, we need to begin to think hard about what makes a LEGO creation a great work of art, or a work of art at all.
Roy definitely gives us a lot to think about in that essay, and I'll have some thoughts in response in a subsequent post, but I urge anyone interested in this topic to read the whole thing over on the Brothers-Brick.

Monday, July 8, 2013


I'm glad to see that AFOLs aren't the only ones having fun with LEGO renditions of artworks. Check out this from the staff at MoMA. The rest of this post is a direct quote from their blog article:
In that spirit, and as an excuse to spend a little time on a Friday afternoon playing with Legos, we decided to whip up some pieces in MoMA’s collection in Lego form. After spending a few bucks online getting a couple bags of mixed bricks, we went to town. Due to the limitations from the random assortment, some of the highlights of the Collection we would love to have remade (Broadway Boogie Woogie and Vir Heroicus Sublimis, I’m looking at you) couldn’t be constructed.
The obvious place to start is Richard Serra, with Equal (Corner Prop Piece) and One Ton Prop (House of Cards).

Of course, you can just as easily go for minimal works, such as Ellsworth Kelly’s Black and Yellow from the series Line Form Color.
And where would be without the Suprematist Composition: White on White of Kazimir Malevich?

And here’s Sol LeWitt’s Floor Structure.
Limited by greens, here’s a mere detail of Donald Judd’s Untitled (Stack).

A regular in the Sculpture Garden is Anthony Caro’s Midday.

Finally, this charming rendition of Rothko’s No. 5/No. 22 was put together by John Wilson.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Cube of Mondrian

Veynom's Cube of Mondrian is a really interesting take on the work of Piet Mondrian. The Dutch painter Mondrian is known for the style he developed called neo-plasticism, where he restricted himself to black, white, gray, red, yellow and blue colors, and basic lines and rectangles. While Mondrian's work is two-dimensional, here Veynom took it into the third dimension. The very cool thing about this, is that if you look directly on this LEGO sculpture from one of the four sides or from above, you can see two of Mondrian's works, and three other images that are in Mondrian's style.

Looking directly on from the front, you can see Mondrian's Komposition mit großer roter Fläche, Gelb, Schwarz, Grau und Blau from 1921.

From another side you see Mondrian's Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red. The original work (painted between 1937 and 1942) is in the Tate Museum in London.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Power of Freedom: Iraq

I don't just want to feature LEGO renditions of other art here. For the first piece of original LEGO art, let's go to one with a very different take than the previous post, Mike Doyle's Power of Freedom: Iraq.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Freedom from Want

What better artist to feature on the Fourth of July than the one most associated with Americana - Norman Rockwell? Some critique Rockwell as more of a pop commercial illustrator than a real artist, but he was a master of designing scenes that tell a story and of showing the emotions of the figures in that story. His Four Freedoms series - Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Fear, and Freedom from Want (here in LEGO by Greg 50) - was painted during World War II, inspired by a speech by President Roosevelt in which he enumerated those four freedoms as essential to all mankind. The original oil painting is at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Thinker

Rodin's Thinker is another very well known work that has been reproduced in various forms, including here in LEGO by Nopdreamers. Originally this work was known as the Poet, as it was designed as a smaller figure of Dante in his large work The Gates of Hell. Rodin sculpted the figure out of either clay or plaster (I've seen both descriptions in different places; perhaps someone with greater knowledge could help clarify in a comment), and then created a mold from the sculpture to cast bronze figures. A larger monumental size version was first cast in bronze in 1902. Since the mold can be re-used, several versions have been made, and so you can see the Thinker in person at museums around the world.

The Thinker has been a popular subject in LEGO. Here are two more. One from Nathan Sawaya's Art of the Brick exhibition and an 'official' one from Legoland.

And less seriously, these by Kevin Hinkle and Jose Betancur.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Who is an artist?

From time to time I'm going to use this space to muse on the questions raised by LEGO and art. I should give a caveat up front that I have absolutely no training (I'm a scientist, for pete's sake), and so I'm sure many would reject my thoughts up front, but I'll take the risk. I wanted to share a couple of related anecdotes, that show where I and my wife differ on some related questions. One time when we were first dating, I told her about going to this birthday party, and when they sang 'Happy Birthday' it was really cool, because a bunch of the people there were 'musicians', and instead of the normal slightly off-key version of the song, there were all of these cool harmonies going on. She really took exception to my description of the group, and still kids me about this many years later. See, when she hears the term 'musician', she thinks of a friend of hers who is a pretty amazing violinist. He studied at Juliard, was at one point tutored by Itzhak Perlman, and currently is a professor in a prestigious university music program. The people I was talking about were all amateurs - the party was for a friend who played guitar in a band and also for our church, so a good portion of the people there were the members of his band and people from the music team at our church. She just thought it was completely wrong for me to refer to people for whom music was a side hobby as 'musicians'. Or, in a related area, I am by all descriptions a scientist - I have a PhD, I teach college chemistry, and I pursue research. Sometimes, I will refer to my students as 'scientists' or 'chemists', and, again, my wife objects. Her view is that these people are at such a beginning stage, and many of them will not go on into careers in science, and so you can't call them 'scientists'. To be fair, she also says that she is no longer a 'scientist', even though she has the exact same degree as me from the same institution (yes, we met in the lab, insert your joke about us having 'good chemistry' here), because she now works in a more administrative/business role, and has not been in an actual lab or classroom in a long time. So we have two views - she insists on using terms like 'musician', 'scientist', or, back to the point of this blog, 'artist' exclusively for people with a very high level of training and expertise who are professionally pursing those pursuits. I would use those terms for people of greatly varying levels of skill who are currently involved in that pursuit, for whatever reason. So, if I pick up a paintbrush, at that point I am acting as an 'artist'. I'm certainly not a good artist, and no one's going to hang my scribble-scrabble* in a museum, but for a short time I am acting as an artist. I think both my and my wife's views have merit, and there are many who will fall on either side of that description. As we approach the creation of 'LEGO art', my view is going to be that if the person is trying to create art, then they are. Now, it might be really bad art, and that's going to be a different question. Anyway, I'd love your thoughts on what makes an artist.

BTW, somewhere there's an essay, I believe by Robert Fulghum (it's probably in his 'All I Really Needed to Know' collection, as I used to own that) that basically says how we all start out believing we're artists, singers, architects, dancers, scientists, etc, but somwhere along the way we're told that we're not. I tried to find the essay to link here, but couldn't. I'd really appreciate it if anyone could point me to it. I did find a great quote from Picasso with a similar theme: "All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up."

*'Scribble-scrabble' was my 5-year-old's dismissive description of her 3-year-old brother's crayon masterpiece in comparison to her own. Both drawings went up on the fridge. :)