Newton eschews the human face. He draws the human behind.
Incorporated as The Original Butt Sketch, he crisscrosses the country making appearances at radio stations, trade shows and conventions. The 39-year-old Dallas artist has a staff of five and a PR department. He makes a very good living.
The history of art is the history of sedition and innovation. Manet dared to paint in sexual allegory; Duchamp defied the intellectual tyranny of the art academe by proudly exhibiting a urinal; Kandinsky declared that shapes and colors alone could be art; Calder harnessed the wind and the very motion of the Earth; Warhol said commerce is art.
And Newton? He says art is commerce.
He discovered this one day in 1987, while starving. A former electrical engineer, he had quit his job to try to make it as an artist, and he found himself on the street, trying desperately to sell his work. He had set up an easel near a parade, but he couldn't see the floats or bands or marching celebrities. All he could see were spectators, facing away from him. So he painted them. You go with what you got. Before he was even done, a guy pulled up in a fancy car and flashed a roll of cash. He offered to buy the sketch. Unfinished.
Apparently, he rather liked the butts.
Newton said: Aha. The gravity of the situation struck him like an apple falling from a tree.
Yesterday Newton sketched several derrieres on the air at the Lanham studios of Magic 102.3 FM. His subjects were Magic listeners, who lined up at 7 a.m. for the privilege of posing. As always, these subjects were fully clothed although one young woman named Tammy had removed her skirt, and most of what little she wore beneath had disappeared into flexures in her anatomy.
To watch Newton work is to watch an artist whose method is, in technical artistic terms, very fast. The average butt sketch takes two to three minutes. He works entirely in charcoal pencil. Like Caravaggio, he favors dramatic shadows, which he renders via a smudge-and-smear technique involving his right forefinger.
Newton's sketches not only have no faces, they have no hands or feet, a delightfully playful fillip that mocks the self-satisfied emphasis on these extremities exhibited by Renaissance painters eager to show off their expertise at difficult anatomical details.
Like that of Van Dyck, who painted wealthy Britons in heroically flattering context, Newton's debt of gratitude toward his patrons and benefactors is sometimes beguilingly evident in his work. A Newton posterior is often a significant improvement on nature. He is less Rubens and more Largilliere, whose portraiture of Louis Quatorze transforms a jowly fop into a dashing, streamlined, elegant prince.
"Holy Moley!" Newton blurts when a woman named Pam steps before his easel. Pam has a derriere that could best be described as "bathtub-size."
In the ensuing portrait, she resembles Tina Turner.
"I like it," she says.
After the radio station gig, the artist sat for a brief interview.
He is a small man, like Toulouse-Lautrec. He is a black man, like Basquiat. He is a happy man, like Picasso. He has a fairly large behind.
"Would you say your oeuvre represents a conscious obliteration of orthodoxies surrounding traditional, stifling definitions of beauty, to the point where, by willfully ignoring the face, you question the very notion of 'self'?"
"Okay," he says.
Newton figures he has sketched more than 150,000 butts in the last 10 years, including those of John Goodman, Alex Trebek, Franco Harris and Leeza Gibbons. The only trouble he ran into was four years ago.
"I had to sue a guy," he says, mournfully.
"He started doing this and calling his business 'Fanny Sketch.' We settled out of court in terms favorable to me."
Is the other guy still drawing butts?
"He's not even looking at them anymore."
Newton is a modest man, and a thoughtful man. He knows he has ridden something fairly small fairly far. But there are horizons yet to be conquered. He says he would like to sketch the presidential butt. It is not because he admires the man, or worships power or celebrity Newton is a populist but because he understands commerce better than most.
"You do his butt," says Newton, "and other butts will follow."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
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