Portraits & Passages
Portrait of Leo Bates (right), 1966
People are like waves of sea and so drift between them wherever they are blown. - Tao
Leo Bates, 1982
I did have a classmate from Carnegie Tech that I became friends with on coming to New York. Leo Bates was a somewhat grotesque, bearded fat man with magnificent, though often bloodshot, black eyes. He wasn't of Irish descent as his name might suggest but Sicilian and from the working poor.
Leo was also a very astute judge of things. He came to New York in 1966 and knew many people. He hung out for years near the Bowery, a place where artists congregated. In 1978 he bought a building in Park Slope. When I returned from my short-lived retreat from New York, it was Leo who put me up. I slept in his basement for over a month not to impose on his and his wife's privacy.
Leo was sanguine about the art world. There was a stoic resolve in his bitter views of how everything was locked up and decided beforehand. There was also an anger of having been born poor that ran very deep along with being a brilliant, passionate soul locked away in a monstrously ugly body. Leo however was wonderfully funny and entertaining. We became Punch and Judy as Leo acted as sort of my guide to places in Little Italy and China Town.
Then in 1980 my father was stricken, and I received a part of my modest inheritance. Leo wanted me to buy a place in Brooklyn, and of course, that was wise advice.
But I didn't. Nor did I tell him of my ads until the fifth issue was out. He was clearly shocked about the rashness in jumping into such an absurd business, counseling me to get a hold of myself and guard the remaining money carefully.
I threw a closing for the exhibition because I didn't have an opening. John's brother had died right before the show was to be hung, and it was decided that an opening at the house would be too much at that moment.
It turned out to be a small group of people. John and Karen mostly stayed upstairs while Leo accompanied by his wife, Ellen, proceeded to get drunk and critical. First, he made remarks about how stupid John was struggling to live in a private house in Manhattan that produced no income. Leo by then had leveraged his modest fund into controlling three storefront properties. John was already upstairs so that wasn't an altercation, but I started to be concerned as Leo got more wired and an ugly aspect came over his face. He kind of was holding back, and I could sense him seesawing while other friends were taking the lead in conversation. But at one point Leo could not take it any longer and started his analysis of my affair into self publishing:
"What Richard is too stupid to understand is that he has just demonstrated how closed the art world is. Look at the magazine pages. Richard's paintings are as good as anyone's in there, but can you find any mention of his work. He thinks someone is going to come along. But there are no more Medicis. No one cares anymore."
Then before anyone understood what he was about, Leo picked up a large stoneware platter, scattered its contents on the table and heaved it towards "Embrace". It bounced off the painting, which fortunately was pinned flat against the wall, and so the painting didn't take much damage. I immediately rushed over and put my arms around him to subdue him from doing anything more, but it was also strangely an embrace as I pleaded "Leo, Leo".
Then I let him go. He teetered like a sleepwalker off balance. Ellen went to him, and slowly they made their exit. I went upstairs to reassure John and Karen that the incident was over. From the window I saw Leo and Ellen embracing with smiles on their faces. I have not met Leo since. Once I saw him on West Broadway two blocks distant, and I reversed my route.
It's sad to loose a friend, but it's even harder when you discover their anger toward you just being yourself. Leo wasn't the only friend or acquaintance that needed to give me a piece of his mind. Some would snarl at me and make as if to spit. It was not pleasant at all, but then you shrug it off. Like I told Jay Gorney, you can't stop in the middle; you go on with your projects.
Artist with Abode (1981), at 29 Downing Street, 1982
Leo's anger was a complex issue, but at its root, at least that which was aimed at me, was the thought that I had been pulling his leg all the while he had imagined he was my mentor. He was outraged that he was taken in by my plight of poverty, though I always said it was my father's choice to let me struggle. What most likely set him off was that he perceived my “feigning" played him for a fool. But I got that reaction from almost everybody because I was always curious to learn something that I needed, and because I had grown up deferring to a vastly more powerful older brother whom I adored, and so was accustomed to being receptive. Leo, along with almost all the other men whom I encountered, mistook that pliancy and adaptability as a sign of submission. But that reading was based on their own need.
I just put aside broadcasting myself and while in their sphere allowed them their due. If the time was not ripe for self proclamation one kept a lid on it.
So starting with Leo, over the years I encountered anger coming from men I had let do the leading. When the time came to dismiss their notions about me, ignore their advice and go about my own agenda, you'd think I was betraying some blood brotherhood. When in reality it was only my business that I was guarding like a mother hen.
The really astute people like Aladar, Elaine de Kooning and Joan Mitchell knew this about me immediately. That's why they kept me away by whatever means.
Artist at 29 Downing Street with Friends, 1982
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