An Artistic Analysis of Four Tech Investors

Seeing the World Through Artistic Eyes

Part of being an art student is that you inevitably see art everywhere, whether it’s meant to be noticed as art or not. This goes for anything—drawings, graffiti, cars, apps—and most recently for me, Twitter profile avatars.

Twitter avatar profile pictures of Fred Wilson (top left), Brad Feld (top right), Hunter Walk (bottom left), and Marc Andreessen (bottom right)

Twitter avatar profile pictures of Fred Wilson (top left), Brad Feld (top right), Hunter Walk (bottom left), and Marc Andreessen (bottom right)

As I was scrolling through my feed the other day, I saw a number of avatars go by, and my resulting thought process surprised even me—I thought wouldn’t it be cool to analyze those the way I used to analyze art pieces for my art history classes (well, cool is relative I suppose, but I’m an art nerd, so there). So that’s what today’s post is about: no talk of music, apps, or any major tech trends. Just an artistic analysis of the profile avatars of four tech investors. I wasn’t sure exactly how to order these, but I decided it would interesting to go according to an art history timeline, rather than simply by alphabetical order. Let the analyzing begin.

Fred Wilson

Fred Wilson‘s Twitter avatar is one of my favorites from an artistic perspective because of its striking power. I look at Wilson’s picture, which sets a large facial portrait against a lime-green background, and think immediately of the work of modern Austrian painter Egon Schiele (something which I’ve tweeted about numerous times). For those unfamiliar with Schiele’s work, he redefined the concept of portraiture in the early 20th century by daring to accentuate bodily features way outside their normal proportions. Some common aspects of Schiele’s work are overly-large eyes, and a strong, set jawline, usually defined by a sharp contour, which can clearly be seen in his pieces “Self Portrait” (1910) and “Self Portrait with Physalis” (1912).

Egon Schiele; left:

Egon Schiele; left: “Self Portrait” (1910); right: Self Portrait with Physalis” (1912)

Looking at Wilson’s picture, the enlarged eyes and clearly defined jawline fit the mold of Expressionism which Schiele helped to pioneer. The eyes are deep-set—almost sunken—but with a gleam that seems to burst from the canvas, made even brighter by the bold green that encapsulates the pupils. The cut jawline is mirrored at the top of the piece by raw, almost rugged strokes of brown making up Wilson’s hair. Yet while the zig-zag strokes chisel the top of the portrait in an almost sculpted way, the slight waviness of the hair on either side of Wilson’s heads help to capture a curved smoothness which bleeds out into the dynamism of the green background.

Fred Wilson Twitter avatar

Fred Wilson Twitter avatar

The life of the piece, though, is centered in the eyes, and the cheeks. The eyes swirl knowingly—disjointed only by the large space between them. The cheeks meanwhile, glow warmly with the only hot colors on the canvas: a roughly hewn pink which darkens towards the face’s edges. Even the the portions of the piece where the paint seems too thin are almost indicative of Schiele’s practice of leaving paintings unfinished. Collectively, Wilson’s avatar contains deep traces of Expressionism roots, though nodding to a lighter palette than was typically used in Europe at the time.

It’s also worth noting, however, that Schiele is not the only art master represented. Henri Matisse seems to make an appearance as well, mostly in the nose-area. While the nose seems almost too large for the face surrounding it, it nonetheless conjures up images of Matisse’s “Portrait of Madame Matisse (The green line)” (1905), or even his “Self-Portrait in a Striped T-shirt” (1906). Intentional or not, I nonetheless look at Wilson’s picture and see Schiele’s Expressionism and Matisse’s Fauvism and Modernism.

Henri Matisse; left:

Henri Matisse; left: “Portrait of Madame Matisse (The green line)” (1905); right: “Self-Portrait in a Striped T-shirt” (1906)

Brad Feld

Brad Feld‘s picture is similar to Wilson’s in that it’s a painted portrait. That, however, is where the artistic similarities end. Whereas Wilson’s piece drips of early 20th century Expressionism and Fauvism, Feld’s portrait exhibits a more mid-century style. The thinner mouth and quirky glasses add a Pop Art flavor to the portrait, a fact that’s exacerbated by the bright greens and purples that play through both the back and foreground.

Brad Feld Twitter avatar

Brad Feld Twitter avatar

While still set amid deeply defined contours, Feld’s jawline is nonetheless more curved and flowing than Wilson’s, and with the light stream of pink that follows the chin-line, Feld’s smile is captured perfectly. The curvature of the lower half of the portrait plays on the wavy strands of hair which sit at the top, floating in a controlled messiness which adds a sense of jubilance to the work.

The most striking feature, though, is Feld’s eyeline. Encased in straight-edged square glasses, the eyeline cleanly divides the portrait into two halves, thereby introducing a sense of order into an otherwise happy-go-lucky piece. The Andy Warhol-esque psychedelic color-scheme in the background is indicative of mid-’60s Pop, as is Feld’s mauve shirt collar. Seemingly taking direction from color-schemes like that in Warhol’s “Marilyn Monroe” (1962), Feld’s avatar bleeds with a real ’60s flavor.

Andy Warhol;

Andy Warhol; “Marilyn Monroe” (1962)

Of particular note, though, is Feld’s smile, which reminds me of pieces by a famous Pop artist, though not one the mainstream is too familiar with. James Rosenquist emerged separately from Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, but is notable for his use of “the grin,” which can be clearly seen in the baby portion of “F-111” (1964-65) and in President Kennedy’s smile in “President Elect” (1960-61). The grin which plays through Rosenquist’s pieces finds a home in Feld’s piece as well, framing the portrait in visions of Pop from all styles of the decade.

James Rosenquist; top:

James Rosenquist; top: “President Elect” (1960-61); bottom: “F-111” (1964-65)

Hunter Walk

Hunter Walk‘s Twitter avatar isn’t hard to place; one look at it and the first thing any art student or aficionado would think is Roy Lichtenstein. The cartoonish quality of Walk’s picture is not only evident, but is the main focus of the piece itself. Whereas the previous pictures exhibited more subtle elements of the art movements which seem to be at play in them, here there is no question. The animated nature of the piece has a disarming effect on the viewer, making Walk’s smile seem all the more friendly.

Hunter Walk Twitter avatar

Hunter Walk Twitter avatar

Much like Lichtenstein’s “Drowning Girl” (1963), Hunter Walk is portrayed in a series of curves and flowing lines. Though obviously different subject matter than the aforementioned painting, there is nonetheless a similar ebb and flow that connects the two. Walk’s hairline is jagged only in certain spots, leaving the rest to create a circular movement around his head. The dynamism that this movement contributes to the piece cannot be understated because it is precisely mirrored by his shoulders and neck tilt.

Roy Lichtenstein;

Roy Lichtenstein; “Drowning Girl” (1963)

Rather than appearing stilted and set, Walk seems to lean into the movement, adding to its run through the picture. Even the shadowing of his beard and smile accentuate the flow of the centripetal movement. The darker shade of gray used for the beard moves along the face smoothly in some areas, and yet is cut sharply in others, much like the movement of waves splashing up against a cliff. The smile, meanwhile, is simple, but creates an eddie around which the flowing contours of the beard and facial lines must move.

Perhaps most interesting of all, though, is the way in which Walk’s beard in the piece seems to harken back to Lichtenstein’s common use of pointillism. While clearly one solid color throughout, Walk’s beard is nonetheless styled and colored in such as way as to appear to be more individualized than it really is. When compared to Lichtenstein’s oil piece “I Can see the Whole Room…and There’s Nobody in It!” (1963), Walk’s avatar seems to take on a different sense of shadow. As the man in Lichtenstein’s painting is lightly shadowed along his face to create a deeper perspective, so too does Walk’s beard in his avatar create for him.

Roy Lichtenstein;

Roy Lichtenstein; “I Can See the Whole Room…and There’s Nobody in It!” (1963)

Marc Andreessen

Perhaps the most post-modern piece of the four is Marc Andreessen‘s avatar, done in a way which most would describe as “South Park-ish” owing to its cut-and-paste style. While this is actually a good description based on South Park popularizing the cut-and-paste style in the last couple decades, it begs the question of what does that mean artistically? Is it just a cartoon? If so, why doesn’t it look like Hunter Walk’s Twitter avatar, which also exhibits a clear, cartoonish quality?

Andreessen’s avatar is a mix of post-modern, cut-and-paste qualities, but it also employs a sense of Pop which is prevalent in the other avatars. The sharp, clean lines cast the picture in brisk light, asserting that it’s so simple, there must not be anything under the surface. But there is.

Marc Andreessen Twitter avatar

Marc Andreessen Twitter avatar

The cartoonish Pop quality hides the other influences which dance through the piece. The basic oval-shaped hands, straight-line eyebrows and simple circular head harken back to the bare-bones approach towards geometry of Cubism, while the flat, cut-and-paste quality is indicative of the Superflat movement. As Cubists like Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris attempted to unravel the notions of geometry in art, so too did post-modern artists like Takashi Murakami desire to understand depth in a different way.

Right: Pablo Picasso;

Right: Pablo Picasso; “Girl Before a Mirror” (1932); left: Juan Gris; “Harlequin with Guitar” (1919)

The simple, circular curvature of Andreessen’s head in the avatar seem to mirror the circular head of the girl in Picasso’s “Girl Before a Mirror” (1932), while his egg-shaped eyes mirror those of the man in the Juan Gris painting, “Harlequin with Guitar” (1919). The flat quality of the avatar, however, jumps almost a hundred years forward, to the Superflat movement of the 2000s, pioneered by Murakami. As Murakami explored the flatness that depth could have in pieces like 2001’s “Tan Tan Bo,” so too does Andreessen’s avatar explore concepts of flatness and depth (perhaps without even knowing it). In its exploration of depth and geometry, Andreessen’s avatar is thus more artistic than it initially appears.

Takashi Murakami;

Takashi Murakami; “Tan Tan Bo” (2001)

Art and Tech Intertwined

Though these are just four analyses of four Twitter avatar’s it’s become clear that art and tech are more closely intertwined than perhaps initially thought. This might explain why I see pieces by Basquiat and other artists come up so often in the tech industry. But it may be even simpler than that—it may simply be that art resonates with people in the tech industry precisely because they are also in the business of creating as much as painters and sculptors are. Or maybe they just like how it looks, that’s a valid point too. In the end what matters is what you see when you look at pieces and avatars like this. For me, I see art that is deeper than what’s on the surface. What do you see?

Two Stories of Sexism in the Music Industry

The kind of BS sexism we need to eliminate

The kind of BS sexism we need to eliminate

The Scourge of Sexism

With the issue of gender equality fast becoming one of the central topics in Silicon Valley (and by extension, the tech and startups industries) at the moment, I can’t say I’m anything but pleased. The problem of gender discrimination and the glass ceiling is long overdue for a solution. While I harbor no fantasies that such a solution will be found overnight, I am nonetheless pleased to see that there is a major effort being made to reform these shortcomings in the tech industry.

As a male, I can confidently say that gender discrimination hits very close to home for me; my parents both practice civil rights litigation, with a focus in employment discrimination and sexual harassment. I grew up seeing cases of blatant discrimination (and unfortunately it makes me angry to say I still do), where the the ugly beasts of intolerance and sexism were clearly visible. The latter, in particular, surprises me again and again because we are taught to believe that we’re moving forward in eradicating sexism—but not fast enough in my opinion. We still have a lot of work to do.

While the tech industry is starting to really spotlight and root out sexism within its ranks (as well it should), other industries are lagging too far behind in my opinion. The music industry, for example, is still too hampered by outright sexism for my taste, even after movements like third-wave feminism and Riot grrrl punk began to shatter the mold. It’s not a foregone conclusion by any means, and there are many within the music trenches who are trying very hard to change it for the better—to level the playing field so that gender becomes irrelevant—so that talent is acknowledged and validated by its inherent existence, regardless of the artist’s gender.

But let me provide two examples of what can be changed, and how people can step in to make the music arena more tolerant and progressive. Neither example makes me happy to share (less happy to have experienced), but perhaps that underscores their importance.

The Sleazy Promoter

The first example happened a couple of years ago, in the spring of 2013, and goes like this: I am good friends with a band whose members included a female element (the singer and drummer). The group was set to work with a promoter to book shows in their home state (which, though eliminated by name, I can say is quite a big market for independent music). The promoter made inappropriate and unwelcome advances towards the female band member(s) and the group cut ties, not wanting to work professionally with someone of such poor character quality. The promoter then retaliated by threatening to call every promoter within the state, seeking to destroy the group’s reputation, thus effectively cutting out their feet from under them. (In this particular state, I can say with confidence that there are at least seven major cities and/or scenes that they most likely split their time between).

I was in Amsterdam at the time, on my study abroad program. I woke up one day to a frantic “what do we do?? we’re going to get totally screwed by this person!” email from the singer. Even through text it wasn’t hard to clearly read her fear and anger over the situation. So her solution? Reach out to me in search of some advice.

The response I sent her was simple: I explained to her that I was behind her, and would throw the entire weight of my blog and radio show behind her and the band (and would bring in other artists I knew for support if need be). I even offered to write a letter as a professional contact (DJ and journalist) attesting to their quality as a band and professionalism as people, which they might use to send to anyone to rebuke the slanderous threats of this sleazy promoter. She seemed calmed by that offer (and most thankful, as you can imagine!) and we decided to see just how events would proceed.

In the end, the promoter never made good on his threats, and the whole situation seemed to blow over. But I never forgot that frantic email (I’m sure she hasn’t either), and to this day I’m still good friends with her and the band. The point is this: such a situation should never have occurred, and it very quickly seemed to spin out of control. But in situations like these, one needs to have the wherewithal to step up for what’s right. I didn’t do anything I didn’t think others wouldn’t do in the same situation. You don’t do it for pats on the back—you do it because it’s right.

The Sexist Tweeter

The second example happened more recently, during the Super Bowl this year. One of the Super Bowl commercials was to promote the hashtag #LikeAGirl to promote gender equality. This is one commercial I loved and supported, and I made so known on Twitter. This was the result:

The sexism problem that needs to be solved

The sexism problem that needs to be solved

I was actually staggered by the sheer sexism of the comment that I saw on my post. Someone telling me that I was sure to “get laid” for supporting “those feminists.” I was angry—actually I was seething. Not only had this person insulted the women that my comment was meant to support, but had dragged my name down too by insinuating that my motive was “to get laid.” I work with numerous artists—many of them with a female element—and I was pissed that this person had seen fit to insult not only people I work with, but people who are my friends.

The music industry is like the tech/startup industry in this respect—not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but trying very hard to get better. And here was someone dragging us back to the dark ages. This is exactly the sort of thing that people in both industries (or any industry) need to find and root out. The people who make these comments and hold these views are toxic. It’s not (and won’t be) easy, but it has to be done. And it will be.

I for one will be on the lookout for it in the music industry, and will call anyone on it. I encourage other to take aim at sexism and gender discrimination in their respective industries which they know best. Music is my world, and I will not have it polluted with this sort of poison. Don’t step into my house and disrespect my business contacts and friends, it’s as simple as that.