Portraits & Passages

Chapter 13

Jessie at 29 Downing Street

People are fearful of those who challenge the status quo. They express that fear by disdain. Pity and ridicule are the patronage of the unimaginative.   - RR

 The Empire Striking Back, Judd Tully - “Flash Art”     1982

The exhibition in the Downing Street studio brought an unexpected surprise when Judd Tully showed up on his bicycle. Judd was one of my oldest acquaintances that  I met  through Penny White, the leading sister in my grattage painting the "White Sisters". I still have a photograph of them holding hands at the opening of my first  solo exhibition in New York at South Houston Gallery in 1974. I had done a minor portrait of him mustached when I had lived on East Seventh Street. A dozen years  later Judd would still shake his head in dismay over my giving up that beautiful apartment.


White Sisters - First State, 1976

None-the-less, I was actually surprised to see Judd. I think I hadn’t even sent him an invitation. He said that he wanted to do a review in “Flash Art” which was just  then pushing its English speaking international edition in New York. I had not known that Judd was writing for them and so was pretty amazed at this prospect. It  seems that he was following my pages in “Art in America” as they were coming out and had seen the occasion of my independent exhibition as an opportunity for a  speculative overview. You can imagine my immediate tightrope walk of anticipation as Judd had indicated his intention of exploring the issues raised by my project. He  didn’t stay long after seeing the paintings, and as soon as he was gone I told myself that something could always go wrong. Hold your excitement at bay!

I saw Judd only once more before the summer issue was to come out when I dropped off a photo for the review. Then, almost two months went by before I  called him. He had just seen some advance copies and seemed beside himself, very agitated and annoyed with my questions. I barely learned that his opening  paragraph about my publishing campaign was lifted by the publishers in Milan. But he would not elaborate and abruptly backed off from the conversation. I was  bewildered and of course disappointed that the pages in “Art in America” would not be fully acknowledged. But I remained hopeful.


Page from "Art in America",  January 1982 issue,
White Sisters - Final State

Then the unexpected happened. Before I could ask, he was fired. It was a summary execution. The empire was striking back, purging itself of anyone who  would support rebellion from quarters unknown. I had been lucky that the publishers had not caught on in time to strike it out completely before the press run.  But Judd never could address the subject again. If I were to bring it up in apology, he would cut off the conversation immediately. He had learned his lesson.


White Madonna, 1981

It would be awhile before I became aware that Judd's punishment was mine as well - that I was to be avoided.

Once, when I was telephoning galleries to see if they had seen my pages, I spoke to Jay Gorney. He said that he did but wasn't interested, then paused, and instead  of saying goodbye, asked me if he could say something: "You have not done yourself a favor. Dealers don't like it that artists take upon themselves to push their  own work." The tone of his voice was that of a taunt. He was definitely aiming to get my goat. But the seriousness of his statement made me reflective instead. I  responded with a sad fortitude. "I'm sorry to hear that, but I cannot stop halfway through a project, goodbye." And strangely enough his voice softened as he said  "Goodbye". It wasn't just from dealers that I felt like a pariah. The people Karen knew from Conde Nast who either worked in the glossy world of magazines or  had associations with it always acted a little put out that I was included at festivities at the Bennett's. Everyone knew I was unknown and worse-poor. It was an unforgiving world, and everybody pretended in importance.

For much of the autumn of 1977 I had worked on John's renovation of his studio. I was good at following his lead, and so we made a good team. Laying down the  wooden floor in what was once a six-car garage was our wildest, noisiest and most satisfying project. It was easy to walk from East Seventh Street to Downing near  Bleecker, and I was happy for the work. Most curious of all was my associating the carriage house with John long before he came back from France and bought it.  We had known each other in Paris after being in a show together at the American Cultural Center. John was living in Sam Francis's old studio. He had taken me with  him once on a visit to Joan Mitchell. She was then living in a renovated stable or factory that made enough of an impression on me that the first time I passed the  Downing Street property I had a premonition that John would take it.


Joseph In The Pit (detail), 1971

John was frantic to finish the house because Karen just had a baby, so he worked round the clock. His refusal to get over to The Public Theatre and see my  installation was none-the less dismissive. There was a certain reluctance that I thought strange since it was just a few blocks away. But then it didn't matter when  Joe Papp took the paintings down. Three years later when I started to place my multiple pages in "Art in America", Karen, who is a person who doesn't make  waves, questioned me about the wisdom of the project by confidentially mentioning her friend whose husband made documentaries on artists comment: "Richard must  be awfully desperate." That was echoed by other people. Shirley Jaffe from Paris asked: "What does Richard think he is doing?"


Artist with Abode (1981), at 29 Downing Street in 1982

But for years everybody would lecture that I had to get my work seen anywhere I could. Only Philip Pearlstein understood on seeing the first four page spread in the  December 1981 issue of “Art in America”. At a Brooklyn College Christmas party he said to me: “I don’t know of anybody who has done this before. You have given  yourself an international exhibition.” I couldn't believe nobody else saw that.

 Pages from "Art In America", December 1981 issue, showing Upper and Lower Kingdom, 1968 and Embrace, 1981



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