Beginnings & Endings

Chapter 14

 Susan Lilly

Susan Lilly didn’t like that I gave Katy’s role as Joan of  Arc to Prince Jasper something shy of adulation.  But for the  moment she kept a lid on. Susan had come east from her home in Corvalis to visit family. She had flown into New York and  had already spent time with Katy. I imagine that’s when she got all pepped  up by Katy’s exploit. Pittsburgh was a convenient stop on the way to her mother’s place.

It was close to twenty-five years since John Lilly had asked  for a divorce. He had hoped that I would take over: “What’s mine is yours” he had said to me during that visit when  Susan and I went off to Joshua  Tree. But Alex, two years  old, would have no part of me when soon after my California visit Susan came east. We let go of that idea which was never openly spoken.

 Thank God! I wasn’t meant for such things. At least I knew  it, though I was surely tempted. That was  back in 1976.  After their divorce, Susan and I would still meet as friends  whenever I visited my brother in L.A. By the time of her  visit to Pittsburgh, it was well over fifteen years since I had seen Susan.

 From my mother’s old place Carnegie Tech was just over the  hill. Susan had known my mother’s warm welcome, and I was glad she got a little picture of the apartment. I hadn’t changed anything since my  mother’s death two years before. There were still paintings covering all the walls, though  the condo was kept rather forlorn. I lived in it as if a squatter, while I worked on a house that I had just bought the  previous year.

 Susan was bursting with pride- the year of the rooster  puffing her feathers. She was telling me of Katy’s  courageous achievement as we walked the vastly changed campus, now Carnegie Mellon. It was a thick,  sweltering summer night humming with cicadas and flying insects. We had entered under the new complex of buildings below the wedding cake beacon tower of old Machinery Hall lit like a swarming  termites’  colony. Below it future technocrats scurried about under the blankets of floodlights.

 That once dark part of the school was never such a busy place when we were students. The architecture of the main  building supporting the tower harkens to Hadrian’s Tomb. For  a hundred years it has stood  picturesque above a deep and wide ravine. Now it all was so bright, like being under  stage lights as we climbed the quadrangle’s sloping lawn up hill towards the imposing fašade of the College of Fine Arts  whose grandeur outdid the Farnese Palace in Rome.

 For all the new building that has been done, it remains truly the queen dowager of the original campus, and for that matter, of Oakland across the ravine, seen straight beyond from where we came to the rising  obelisk-like structure of  the Cathedral of Learning. The whole view from Fine Arts  still thrilled, but I seldom now would enter the building  itself. It had held my heart for so long only to become distant and  only visited with indifference. The memories no  longer match what they’ve changed.  

 Susan too had changed dramatically since the last time I saw  her. She no longer had the deft antelope gate  that even  until her forties gave her an appealing touch of classy charm. Now middle age had thickened the once supple waist, lowering her center of gravity on feet a little too firmly planted on the ground. Where  had all that lightness gone  replaced by an embarrassed lethargy. I had not imagined her so matronly, so lacking in resiliency.

 Then again, something in the hesitancy of her demeanor  suggested far more was weighing her down despite her wild exuberance in recounting about Katy and other stories of Alex manning the front lines in  Seattle during a meeting of  the World Bank. I frankly would be fearful for my own child.  There was something extreme about it all. I wondered what  she was struggling with inside.

I  would discover that the next day when we walked over to the house that I was renovating about two miles away. It was something that I had not reckoned on, and I stepped into the breach.

It was a big undertaking having torn away the attic joist to  replace them with hundred year old barn beams- another of my  extravagant follies, and I could feel the silent resentment accumulating on top of the  awkwardness of the visit.

 For years now Susan had been happily remarried. One would think that everything had been settled once and for all. But she acted uncomfortable the preceding night, firmly closing  the door to my mother’s  bedroom with undue emphasis as if I  might have construed availability on her part. Such days  were long gone. I thought we had put that aside. Hadn’t that created so much confusion years before.

 Again it made me wonder why the visit to reminisce with me  on the old stomping grounds so drastically changed as we  ourselves. There really seemed no point if one were uneasy. So much of the enthusiasm  that had once bonded our group had soured. We had left it behind us and went our way. A few small snapshots from the wedding in Oregon had let me know that she was fine, or so I believed.

On the way back to the condo Susan asked me an unusual  question. It seemed loaded with naivetÚ from someone who  should have by then known something of disappointment.

 After all, Susan had lived and worked in L.A. and seen how  Hollywood operates. Hadn’t John Lilly been treated with little more than contempt when he worked for the studios.  Why ask at point blank a question  that just the night before was more than answered. Why pick. It could get messy.

 For hadn’t I responded to her boasting about Katy’s “moral  stand” defending Jasper Johns by my story when nobody  thought that Joe Papp’s removing my paintings from the walls  of the Public Theatre  warranted at least a response. They  too had made a quiet but definitive presence in the downtown  art scene at a transitional period between Minimalism and  the return to figurative painting.

 They had hung there in the lobby of The Public Theatre on Lafayette next door to Cooper Union at Astor Place, not off the beaten track and deserted, but a major intersection and  subway destination. The East  Village art scene was in its nascence; young artists were moving into the area all around Tompkins Square. That was just down the street a few blocks away.

 There were as many issues to consider in my example as in the Jasper Johns incident, including how the art world  ignores whomever it decides doesn’t belong, and therefore,  doesn’t exist. Such situations are an  everyday occurrence. I shouldn’t feel as if I were the only artist to be lost in  the shuffle.  

My three year run at The Public was, never-the-less, unusual in its duration, and that the venue attracted a far wider  public than the average gallery exhibition. It was also at a  time, now sadly passed, when the  building could remain open during the day without fear of vandalism.

I  had been particularly fortunate that my paintings were  respected. Anybody could walk into the lobby and see them.  That is exactly what I would do from time to time since I lived close by on East Seventh  Street. Sometimes the red  curtains that opened the corridor where the two large red grattage paintings faced the lobby would be closed during performances. But mostly they were opened. That’s how I   discovered them taken down; nobody had informed me.  

If there were bitterness in my bringing up the comparison that  made evident I was marooned, a wise person would have been wary of rousing it again. It was such a commonplace to pronounce someone’s  career dead. I didn’t enjoy being told that the game was over. My heart was still beating. I was  still taking out ad pages of my paintings in “Artforum”. It was absolutely necessary not to let negativity get one down.   

 Susan herself had been privy to a history full of the disasters of my being my own person. She already knew the answer to her question. It had been a long road from which to disentangle emotionally. One  could be chagrined, but it was important not to let it drive a stake into one’s heart.  To remain an artist  inside or outside the art world meant  keeping one’s equilibrium.  It required an act of spiritual centering and a vision of the long haul.

 All those years I had given her too much credit. After all, Susan was just the seamstress for the band. I mean literally. She did the costumes while John and the gang  built the touring sets for groups like The  Beach Boys. She  was one of those svelte girls with a smooth educated voice. To know how to sow velvet on the bias is useful, but it’s  not more than it is. Now she was a weaver, which is a beautiful thing to do,  but what has that got to do with art!

I  had spent a lifetime in differentiating what was above from what was below; had fine tuned my discrimination and opened  up to what was hitherto not on my radar- points of view not previously  considered. Lepper had pointed out some of those horizons. I was especially aware of those branches of  artistic possibility that the four big guys from Carnegie  Tech pursued- to the extent that I saw my role in  complementary play to theirs. So that Richard Rappaport’s  vision of contemporary traditional imagery would be in  dialogue with that of Warhol, Pearlsetin, Bochner, and  Borofsky. I had borrowed, and I had  rejected, and what I left was a synthesis. I did not see myself as a reactionary, but as someone opened to a tradition that needed a free range to remain vibrant.

 John Lilly, during the years he was working for Jonathan  Borofsky, would call me a classicist, I suppose  as an  implied limitation. Did he see my work diminished by a world  progressing to new heights. I would  be told many years later that John felt a tug of competition between us. I never  considered it. It never even occurred to me. John was no  threat. I was comfortable in myself.

 Nor was I enamored by success. Jonathan’s work had a quick, forceful punch-line only to go nowhere beyond its original  idea. It was a product of a literary concept without the  holding power of aesthetic  depth. Jonathan and I knew each  other enough to greet the other when we were in school, but we were never friends.

So Jonathan was gracious to allow John to bring me up to his  perch overlooking the Pacific. He was not looking for my friendship, nor was I his. Both of us roamed a world of our  own that comfortably excluded  the other. It was John who was showing me the sights. Was I envious; not especially. Sure,  it’s nice to have comfort. But if I could have beaten Jonathan to his niche following in his manner; no thank you!  Jonathan and I understood one another. John was a different  story.

If John Lilly could not come to terms with me, how did Susan  imagine she could. Knowing Jonathan and Lepper, meeting Mel  Bochner at her sister’s, didn’t mean she could judge what was at play. She thought  it was her due. Instead she was  just an aging hippie stranded in a time warp where anything goes. That  same generation embraced pluralism. As an idea it  is a generous position, but as a reality it still requires  discrimination.

So we were about ten blocks from my mother’s when Susan asked me: “Richard, I don’t understand why you never made it. Your  work seemed as good as what I’ve seen out there. Why was  that?”

My response and her adamant stand that came out mostly as bellow I will shorten here as some of the things I’ve just expanded upon were pieced into the conversation. My words  came very quietly and paced thoughtfully:

“I came of age with my particular talents at the worst possible time. What I did was not wanted. Then the social sciences  took over art theory, which created a situation that  basically denied that aesthetic  experience had value in  itself and favored the social critique that came with Feminism’s ascendancy. Now don’t get me wrong. Many of the  reforms fostered by Feminism have my blessing. Where I have a  problem is Feminism’s attack on the traditional canon that led to the politically correct position that all expression is equal and all forms are equal including the crafts being  upgraded to art.”

 “They are. They’re art!”

 “Let me back up here, and I’ll try to make myself clear so  as not to imply that I disrespect the crafts or in  any way  demean them, for our lives are incredibly enriched by them  and made beautiful. I think there are also many better craftsmen out there than there are artists. So I do not wish to belittle them. But what the  crafts do, including most of the design fields, is not art.”

 “Yes it is. It’s art!”

 “Well, the consequences have been such as to rate what I do as of no more significance than what anybody out there  irregardless of talent and ability who calls himself an artist does.”

 “Yes, that’s art too if that’s what they have decided!”

 “That attitude has negated all that I believe and made havoc  with my life. I have suffered because of it. If  you don’t  mind, I can see this is not going to get us anywhere. Please  let’s end this conversation because I find it very unpleasant to speak about it any further.”

 “But I don’t want to end it. I am an artist too, and I don’t  want to be told otherwise!”

 “Please, Susan! You asked me, and I have told you. I left New York to get away from all this. I’m sick to  death of it  all. It’s why I have cut my ties to Katy. I couldn’t stand  any longer the equivocating crap from her.”

 “You have no right to speak of Katy like that!”

 “Then let’s not continue in this.”

 “But I want to continue!”

 “Susan, if you insist on it, you will jeopardize our  remaining friends. If I have to, I will cut you out the way I cut out Katy.”

 “How dare you speak to me like that! I will not be  threatened by you deciding to end our friendship  because you  don’t like what I say. I don’t have to put up with this. I  will not stay a minute longer than to get my things. I’m going!”

You may think me unsympathetic and unduly hard. But the vehemence in Susan came at me almost from the beginning. If  she was out for validation, she would not be thwarted. She  was unwilling to allow me  what I could give, but offered no  suggestion of a rebuttal. She only declared herself as if that attested to its truth. It was a demand. The quieter I  got; the louder her voice.  

Our relationship had long since dwindled to a faint whisper.  Obviously now it was worth very little except my acquiescence. My words saying so acknowledged that reality.  I am content to go my way alone. I don’t  like lies that others contrive to come from my mouth.

We were just about at the entrance to my mother’s building, silent as we rode up the elevator. Susan gathered her belongings and left. I was sorry that Susan most likely  found herself inconvenienced, but I’m  sure not worse than a  long wait in a bus station. She would not allow any suggestions that might have made it easier for her.  Otherwise I wasn’t sorry. I frankly was annoyed,  indifferent, numb.

A  few weeks later I called John Lilly. I had expected a call  from him. He answered surly, saying I had disturbed him at breakfast and would call back another time. I’ve never heard from him. I suppose he had  the story from Susan and judged  me for its bitter fruit. That was his call. About six months  later I crossed his name and number out.


Difficult Is as Difficult Does

As I have been writing these stories of betrayal, one might suspect that I am lying to myself; that the cause of poisoned friendship had come from me, from my own severity;  that it was I who stood haughty and  vainglorious, rigid in diligence to a tradition based on unusual ability.

It certainly looks plausible, and there is some truth to that.  There are so many judgments pouring onto these pages that one could wonder how charitable my opinion of friends were.  Surely it must have been  my staunch beliefs holding my  friends’ views provisional and passing that provoked some counterfeit of friendship. People get hurt and insulted.

All I can say is that I had wished for every one of them to rise to the occasion, surprise me, and together find our place in the world. Of those in my stories of broken friendship, more likely it was they who  excluded me, who held my ways as old fashion, or lied to themselves with  borrowed notions and agreeable self-deceptions.

 For those needing a rationale, I’d let them be as long as their contrivance did not force my participation in  their  masquerade. I did not treat being an artist as a frivolous  indulgence. I drew a line. If there were hardness coming  from my view, its clarity was not impaired by a parochial bias. I could bend in  appreciation to other forms without  threat to mine. But don’t demand concessions from me for  hollow acts. I had struggled very hard and very long to be  understood completely to myself. If I am my own island , I  had paid a price to be let alone.

My self-sufficiency is what was found repugnant. It innerved  people that I didn’t need a consensus. I could not pretend  that I did not believe in myself. Yet, whatever I imagined  my destiny was in no way  dependent on seeing them below me. If they had it in them I would not withhold my enthusiasm. I just needed to grasp their essential project.

For if there was anybody who could enter someone else’s mode  of operation it was I no matter how close to my work or how  far. If they asked me to sit down before their enterprise I would do so and offer  encouragement to persevere, that their goal was in sight, and its significance worthy of effort.

There was a disciplined, rhetorical approach to my analysis.  I had been surrounded by masters in the  dialectics of art  practice as normal conversation, first with Mel Bochner in  the early evenings on our way to the old print room at Tech; then with his mentor Robert Lepper the following year. One looked for an  overview.

If I spoke with personal authority, the clarity of my feedback  did not arrive from arrogance but from an informed perspective. Often, it was they who could not comprehend the significance of what I could see in  their work. I was not  there to knock them off balance.

The sad truth is that one cannot move to a place like New York and remain innocent. Just being there denies neutrality. That’s only good for outsiders who never apply for admission. Any slippery encounter  with the inmates will  leave one shorn. One could even say this ain’t no tea party unless you can afford the dry-cleaning bill after being  caressed by jellied fingers. That is as long as you welcome their sticky  embrace.

For you are deemed their supplicant. Even a hint of resistance crosses their watchfulness. They are assessing  your malleability. You must be as good a pretender as they. They want you cooing without  having coaxed it. Otherwise  they’re contrite. Bark, when they say bark; bend, when they say bend over. And if not; you’re difficult!

But surely your old friends are different. For once they  begin entertaining their standing, a poison enters  whose  roots can never be withdrawn completely. Thereafter, don’t  speak of friendships. There are none.


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