Beginnings & Endings

Chapter 12

Katie and Ghost of Von Thelan horizontal

  Sisters

  Carnegie Tech being a very small school, the girls from departments outside of the College of Fine Arts were drawn  to the more charismatic fellows in art, though the  dramats  dated exclusively amongst themselves. Alisa parker dated  Jonathan Borofsky, and her best friend Susan Martin followed  her example and dated a  design student, John Ward. Ward  became friends with John Lilly our senior year, and towards  graduation time broke off from Susan.

A  game of musical chairs followed suit. My girlfriend Linda had already left school mid-term for Boston, leaving me free to date Susan. On our way to a makeshift  apartment on our first date, we were back-ended while stopped at a light by a woman named Florence Bender. Forty years later I still remember her name. Except it wasn’t funny as both Susan and I needed neck braces.

All of this is a round-about way of saying that in the  meantime, John Lilly seemed the better candidate, having been accepted at graduate school at Berkeley, and  together John and Susan did more than California Dreaming as the song goes. They would return to Pittsburgh a year and a half  later when John entered a  doctorate program in design at Tech, and for the next eight months the three of us made a regular team. I had inherited David Byrd’s old apartment on  the top floor  of a rickety townhouse close to the campus. I  was painting and as happy as I would ever be.

Before my going off to Paris in September, I stood beside John as he and Susan exchanged vows in a small summer wedding in Warriors Mark, PA on the  extensive grounds and  dilapidated wood-clad 1820s mansion of an early iron baron’s  estate that now was the home falling down around Susan’s  eccentrically  mad widowed mother. The un-kept park had trees well over a century old and at night became an enchanted  playground where I necked with Susan’s sister Katy.

Katy Martin would eventually weave herself into this story  by her move to New York soon after my first year on East  Seventh Street. Starting as the assistant to  Mrs. Vanderbilt  Webb at the Crafts Museum, Katy then moved on to become Paula Cooper’s secretary at the gallery in Soho where she  would meet among the artists showing there Jonathan Borofsky.

All of a sudden the younger sister had become a familiar  insider to some of the major players of the Seventies art world. Talk about sibling rivalry that threatened  Susan and  John’s cool, especially as Katy’s husband to be was a new wave filmmaker. From my viewpoint I could not understand the  problem; what was wrong with inclusion instead of exclusion.

Susan is a Pisces and Katy a Scorpio. One would have thought  the two sisters in the element of water would have a  harmonious, sympathetic friendship. But each at  least  towards the other took on the more negative aspects of their  respective signs. Katy was ambitiously competitive, and  Susan showed herself as extremely  unbalanced and lacking in  objectivity. Katy’s over-riding the traditional pecking order by her assuming membership in the art community  triggered an exaggerated  response from Susan, whose own private world back home was unraveling with John’s increasing emotional disengagement. The marriage was all but in name  collapsed, and Susan was at the point of panic that  was further unsettled by Katy’s self-satisfaction.

Around the time Susan visited New York in the spring of 1976  I got a glimpse of the intensity of this rivalry of sisters as they battled for ascendancy. To what end  I’m not sure.  When I foolishly tried to diffuse the rising temperatures so  unproductive and unnecessary, I got caught in it. I had  foolishly tried waving it  away as a momentary silliness  between sisters. Susan just about got me by the scruff of  the neck and read me the riot act. How dare I interfere between them!  This episode, so minor and yet so revealing, would change forever my prior openness with Susan. From then on I would guard my words and keep my distance. Whatever bond I had imagined with Susan would never be the same.

I hadn’t understood that everyone was positioning themselves  in games of one-upmanship until I stepped into it like the  dog-poop that covered the streets of  New York. Except that  it infested all our lives. It couldn’t be just wiped away.  For there arrived first silently in what was once friendship a contagion of hidden  agendas and rivalries that blossomed like mold spores. The air became foul: the taste of bitter  acidity after conversations no longer harmless. The smell lingered never quite going away.

Everything got corrupted by imagined and not so imagined  insults from a word spoken in the wrong way, in a manner of  superior attitude of rank and privilege.  Katy’s husband Bill never for instance condescended to invite me to his screenings, nor did he come to any of my exhibitions. I too  was at fault for not  asking or showing more interest. In his  eyes I was a relic of his wife’s past, something of an  ex-in-law that duty bound she kept in contact for appearances  sake. In Bill’s smirking gaze I felt as if before a lip-smacking hyena and guarded my fingers. Looking  at his round cheeks I sensed his already imagining me between his molars.

Their buying a loft in the same Tri-Be-Ca building where Mel  Bochner lived further entangled the loose threads dangling from a past whose principals were not  too keen on  resuscitating. Katy whereas relished in the ordure of Mel’s decay the way a dog luxuriates on her back transfixed upon the fecal matter of dead raccoon.

If you think that only aborigines observe the pleasure of tasting their neighbors’ eyeballs, a scoop of brain of a  rival, it is nothing to the cannibalistic meanness that  stings from one’s oldest friends in the art world.

 Several years before I had given Katy a major, one of a kind, paperwork that she had proudly hung by her desk when  she had been working for Mrs. Webb at the  Crafts Museum. Then she was still a newcomer; for by the time she moved into the loft, a completely reversed loyalty appeared with  Mel’s present of an etching.  Not only did she take down my  work but removed it from the frame as if from that moment on  it were no longer going to be part of her life. None-the-less she did  place it carefully in a proper drawing cabinet until the time Susan, who once had it on loan, retrieved it as her own. So all’s well that ends well! I had never realized  how much Susan loved the piece. I had been careless swapping it around.

 Such acts are insignificant, and at the same time they’re not. It made clear in Katy’s homage to Mel my drop in merit  in her estimation. What had happened to  her gratuitous pride in knowing me! That would have needed an independent assurance in me despite my unacknowledged status. Aside from my feelings of  betrayal, it made evident how compromised her  visual acuity was in not conceiving how my work from 1967  had pre-dated the post- modern sensibility just then  emerging.

 

Nor would Katy ever make space for her portrait painted in Warriors Mark in 1968. A very fragile canvas as if recovered  from a tomb in Ravenna. It had been  painted over a ghost image from a refused commission by a Charlottesville society banker in red cap and hunting costume. Now if ever there was a post-modern  painting as palimpsest it was that displaced banker’s inscrutable face scraped down to the threads  encaging him in lost time while Katy’s face, boldly brushed,  jumped forward into the present mode.

 Like so many other friends whose portraits were hidden in closets while they lived amongst the art world, Katy was  given a unique totem of herself that could, with  the right  daring showmanship, have been an asset to her prestige if only she believed it so. But she didn’t! She was like everyone else. She couldn’t separate  her private self from  her public persona. She didn’t have the discipline or the strength of conviction. Being a New York artist is a performance, and any strong  portrait is an emblem of authentic membership. That understanding is the prerequisite of the game. Whatever her feelings were about the portrait should not have come into play.

 Katy was always displaying her critique of bourgeois  resistance to anything outside the orbit of acceptable  taste. Here I had given her an icon of herself bigger  than life, and she looked at it askance as if she were a middle class homemaker afraid of her shadow. Consequently, Katy made herself so small. No matter her  living cheek and jowl  with famous artists, Katy would remain a groupie for she  looked to them for approval.

Of course, that’s suggesting that Katy ever had an idea of her  own. Her blobs of paint on canvas would have no meaning to anyone if she herself were unsure. And  if they had credible truth to her eyes, shouldn’t that be reason enough for making them. For if one can enter one’s own vision and live in its fiction as one’s own  recreated reality, then why ask  for feedback on one’s paintings as Katy would. Why not  invite visitors to see her work, period. One makes oneself  small by being  small. To live in the epicenter and paint, and then not declare one’s independence before the world is  an equivocation. Katy was very good at having it both ways  and no way.

 Katy would come to my exhibitions at Blue Mountain Gallery  and upon taking her leave say with I suppose well intention: “Richard, this is great for a cooperative  gallery  exhibition” Well, isn’t it great period! Was she judging the  work as dependent upon its venue. Why the condition. If it’s great shouldn’t it be seen at MOMA!

On one of those same evening openings, a young hip couple came  up to me and said: “What are you doing here. You should be  showing at Mary Boone’s along  with Schnabel.” And of course  I should have. But Katy couldn’t see that. Katy couldn’t see period. She just lived and worked in the art world. In that  she fit the rule and not the exception.

If I speak about Katy as someone who sees only what she is  granted to see, I do not imply that she may be weak or  stupid. On the contrary, she is neither meek not  brainless. My observations are about that form of knowledge that isn’t  verbal in conception and requires a different order of capabilities that need years of  nurturing. One doesn’t snap  one’s fingers to become visually acute. Without it how can  anyone find comfort in independent opinion. For only the  sanctioned views  agreed upon by the elite faction gave her  clarity of action.

 Such was the case in Lincoln Center’s abortive decision to  sell its golden Jasper Johns for reasons that had to do with  its safety and the enormous cost of insuring a  painting worth over ten million dollars. Simply told here, Katy was working in some capacity for that institution and whistle blew on the impending sales transaction.

We should also say that years before Katy made a short  documentary film of Jasper in the process of making a  silkscreen print for which he gratefully sent her a  thank  you contribution of, I believe, a thousand dollars. Katy was  thrilled to have had access to the master and to have his thanks- a feather in her cap, even though  the film showed  the redundancy of his repeated layers: the performance being  fresher and more satisfying than the resulting print. But  who would question his going through the motions.

Of course, she was riding on a star which is a whole easier trip than building your own rocket ship and gambling on it flying. In that, Katy is not guileless or different  than the majority of small insider helpers trading on their insignificance to frequent with the real players promoted by  the machine of the art market. And I suppose it  took a considerable amount of indignation on her part as well as  daring to notify the press and loose her job while  protecting the enshrined placement of her hero’s painting.

 Not that if it were to go for a record bid at auction Jasper  would have suffered a decline in his current prices. For that matter, it was very probable that some  billionaire  would have purchased it for his favorite major museum where it might have been placed to better advantage.

 All told, it shows us the vicarious identification and  dedication of the groupie. It’s the vital force from which the art world sustains its power. It would be Katy’s red badge of courage.

 Now let’s tell another story that suggest a parallel of sorts without the vast prestige of Jasper’s situation, nor  ending with his triumphant acclaim, for no one  protested  when Joe Papp took down my “Joseph in the Pit” and “Jacob in  Mourning” from their perches in the lobby of the Public  Theatre. No one gave  notice; no one wrote a postscript, a note of farewell, no adieu. Nor for the three years they stood their ground as one of the earliest examples of the  post-modern  sensibility in figurative painting did anyone in the art world think they were worth commenting upon.

 Certainly Katy Martin had seen them, but she made no move once they were removed if only to comment on the salient  issue that “any art” had been replaced  by Papp’s photographs  of himself inspecting the first renovation of the old Astor Library that Papp made into the Public Theatre. Here was a political stunt of self -aggrandizement and fundraising prior  to the inaugural party for Mayor Ed Koch.

If ever there were a case to consider on its merit, irregardless of its lack of celebrity; here was a story  whose consequences beyond its particular details were  worth  reflecting on for issues of overlapping jurisdiction in the arts.

 Furthermore, if one wished to speak about ethical responsibility or lack of it, here was a situation where the  moral regard for the artist seemed not to exist to the   extent that, by chance and not notification, the artist  discovered his paintings carelessly positioned in a storage room atop a pile of haphazard stage material.  Fortunately  they were not damaged, but how long before they would have  been. That the artist, once the works were home safely,  considered their three year run a  blessing despite the negligent and unceremonious ending, in no way clears the incident from redress.

 Herbert Simon had said to me: “The man in power will not  risk his prestige except for the most important occasions.” In Katy Martin’s case, she never had standing,  but she  understood very well the game of how to get it. So she  waited strategically for the most exposure to realize the full potential of her gambit. Her  calculation understood how little she had to risk and how much notoriety she could  garner for herself by pleading Jasper Johns’ victimization.  She made it sound that  the sky was falling, and the other chickens around concurred.

 Obviously for Katy, the only art worth fighting for is the  art already validated. That art needed a champion, and Katy Martin would become its hero. There was  nothing in it for  her to aid some maverick who should be grateful that scraps fell from the Newhouse table and so got to show at the  Public Theatre.

So yes, there are those out there whose bravery in the heat of  battle is unquestionable as long as they have art history on their side. They are superb in the  glory of their steadfastness to duty. We shall be grateful to them  eternally, especially now that music lovers will continue to  see art that looks like their cigarette lighters while having a drink at intermission.

 

Katie Martin full titled 1968 to 1976

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