Beginnings & Endings

Chapter 15

lynn red calander copy

Lynn

Most likely everybody is insane, which is what everyone has called me over the years. Take for instance my old friend Lynn, who on my return to Pittsburgh from  Florence and Sienna in the autumn of 1990 showed me her wonderful standing ballerinas hand sculpted in clay about two feet  high that she had done in my three months’ absence.

Out of her mouth, as if I had disregarded her worthiness  came: “I’m as good as you! I’m as good as you!”

It didn’t appear as jubilation; if it had; if it had laughter and warmth to it I would have been part of her joy. Instead her tone was bursting into a grotesque shriek,  defiant and  glowering. Nor was I a stranger. If I had been a dealer, and  she were nervous, that defiance might have been understood, though thought uncontrolled. But I was her friend.

For hadn’t I since the very first time we met in her studio,  close to two decades before, said she was gifted. Didn’t I  encourage her when in her isolation no one  else was there.  The sculpted figures were a striking surprise. I loved them.  I immediately said so. Hadn’t I always been there to rejoice with her! She had  turned celebration into abuse. It was no way to speak to your best friend. It made me wonder.

 

New York City circa 1973

We had met in New York sometime in 1973 at the Broome Street  Bar. She was with her then first husband Jim Nelson, their  best friend George Bouer, and his  girlfriend Ellen. All four were painters who graduated with Barbara Schwartz and knew Aladar. By chance my friend and I were seated at the table next to theirs. I knew Lynn’s face but not her name.

I introduced myself, and they more than recognized mine. Three  years before Jim had actually been encamping at the Schwartz’s house under the pretext of studying  cabinetry  with Jake Schwartz the summer Barbara had made her plans to visit me in Paris. It was all a game of charades.

When I painted the Schwartz’s portraits the following summer, Jake was still puzzled and somewhat put-out by Jim’s  simply showing up one day to become  their extended houseguest. Jake could not phantom what this fellow had in mind. Perhaps Barbara had stung Jim along. But if so, by the time Jim had got to  Philadelphia Barbara saw in me the more  favorable opportunity. Jim got left holding the bag, pretending to play apprentice to old Jake Schwartz.

Eventually, Jim returned to Pittsburgh to collect his old girlfriend Lynn, and once married moved to New York. I could have told Jim that he got the better deal with  Lynn. All he had to do is ask Bill Jensen! For Lynn was naturally supportive, even to the point of subordinating herself to her husband and their maniacal, stoned and  drunken, and crazed George Bouer, who fed off Jim’s companionable rivalry and Lynn’s adulation of them both.

Jim and Lynn moved into the worst rat-infested warren that  loft-living in Soho of the early 1970s could offer. Lynn did  office work, and the guys did carpentry and  drywall. But they had each other. Handsomely bearded and tall George was  a force like few others- a super-nova who attracted and  recruited everybody to him  and to them by the radiant energy  pouring off his aura, his sometimes delightful charm, and often just by grabbing them by the shoulders if not by the neck.

George would engulf you. He simply would grab you and lead  you into their circle if at a bar, and if close to his loft  on Broome, bodily drag you into his studio just a  few feet above street level. George had genius, but he was very close to insane. His substance abuse pushed him over the edge just  a few too many times.

Eventually this little group disintegrated out of sheer exhaustion even to the point of Jim and George in fisticuffs  over Lynn. Lynn and Jim moved back to Pittsburgh.  They could take no more of such a careening ride with George as their guide; while George himself had crashed so desperately, that  one day he woke up with  the certainty that he was on a suicide course, and wanting to live, made a very extreme  decision, for there was no middle ground with George. He  gave up  everything! He left New York, he left drugs and  drinking, and he gave up being an artist.

Sometime around the mid-seventies they all disappeared  almost without warning. I mostly missed Lynn. I would talk to her while the guys paraded in their self -admiration. They  never really included Lynn in their team. She was their cheerleader. Nor did they have any interest in my joining  them even though our work had much in common.

When I had my exhibition at South Houston Gallery in  November 0f 1974, Jim and Lynn barely made a token presence  at my opening, and if they came to the  party afterwards at  Leo Bates’ loft, I don’t remember seeing them stay for long.  It was if they were making a point of it. I do remember Lynn  saying something about  going to a movie. She said it in a very blasÚ manner.

It seems that they had problems going on below the surface. Within a year or so of moving back to Pittsburgh Jim, out of the blue, would announce his intention of  leaving Lynn. When he walked out he took as much of their personal possessions  as he decided. There was definitely something ungentlemanly  about his departure. He just left her in the lurch.

In the terribly cold winter of 1977-78, Lynn came to New York and stopped by my East Seventh Street apartment for an  afternoon visit. It was soon after Jim’s  leaving, and she still was off-balanced. I was one of the few friends she came to see. I had loved her for a very long time. I had never, ever suggested anything;  now it was different. As she sat right next to me crying, I placed my arms around her. Before I could say a thing, she blurted out: “No, not you  Richard. I could never be involved with an artist again!”

I  dropped my arms from her and moved away. I had to choke back  my chagrin. I was very sad because we made such a good compliment for the other. I walked  her back in the direction  of Washington Square. The city had been inundated with snow after snow, and the inner plaza and walks around the square  were a frigid  icescape dulled by the grey twilight of  late-afternoon sky, deserted but by a few foolish visitors risking their necks. She hugged me goodbye, and I turned and walked back to the East Village.

When next we met I would be living on Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn. It was summer 1979. I had had a very rocky year and a half since I had last seen her, but  finally settled to find myself in graduate school at Brooklyn College. Lynn was already involved with the man she would marry. They had  known each other since  elementary school. They drove up for a weekend excursion and for my silent  blessing.               

 

storm full 75
Lynn in The Storm
Lynn The Muse by the Park

The Muse by the Park

 Over the years I would paint Lynn, and when her daughter  Becca got old enough to pose, I painted her also. Lynn and  her husband Mark lived on a private road of  modest houses at the edge of Frick Park in Pittsburgh. The park comprises most of the formidably extensive grounds of the Frick estate  used once as bridle paths that plunge down ravines to  hollows below.

 That’s where we’d go off for walks, Lynn and I. First it was  with Bahema, then Blue, and when she died struck by a car, came Ajax, sweet, reliable Ajax.  Bahema, a Labrador as they all were, was a dark princess, black and inscrutable, Lynn’s altar ego whom she treated as if a sister. She was with Lynn in Soho on those dark deserted streets, her guardian and  companion.

 Lynn’s biggest fear was that Bahema would wolf down some rat  bait left about on the street before she could pull it from her mouth. I had seen them tugging on some  dead thing that  any self-respecting dog worthy of the name would never let  go. But that was about the only thing that they disputed on  occasion. Lynn was always  addressing herself Bahema’s part of the dialogue: “Oh Lynn! Don’t you understand what a find that was. I guess I just lost it, but it was such a  temptation. After all, I am a dog!”

 Even Jim Nelson, whose loft building I moved into when I  returned to Pittsburgh, would mimic Bahema’s dialogues with  Lynn. He missed her conversations:  “Richard, you’re lucky.  You at least still get to talk with Lynn.”

 And we talked almost everyday for six or seven years. I probably spent more time with Lynn in Frick Park than the  old steel baron ever did. Afterwards we’d  go up to the finished attic that Lynn used as her studio. She’d begin to  work on something or other, comfortable in my presence,  while I’d sit in the usual chair that  once was her father’s  or mother’s. I can’t remember. There I’d ramble on about  art.

 Lynn was so much more ambitious than I. Her signs of Cancer and the Chinese year of the Rat reinforce each other.  However, there is a weakness inherent below  the surface.   Hobbled by a fear of insufficiency, she pushed that much  harder only to wobble in uncertainty by the thought of coming before the world.

 Then all the driving determination evaporates like rats abandoning a sinking freighter. She would scurry to hide her  work from view. Once when she was  invited to a group exhibition, she chose the spot behind a pillar to install  her pieces.

In that sense Lynn was always emotionally sabotaging herself  with apology when all she needed to do was stand firm. That’s why she had subordinated her person  to be the girl mascot for Jim Nelson and George Bouer years before in Soho. She looked to them for the strength that she denied herself.

 That just doesn’t work if one wants respect. Any glimmer of self-doubt and you are dropped. No one wastes time if you don’t stand up for yourself. You must be  willing to take the  poison darts that come and not give them power to discredit you. Your job is to convince. If they don’t buy it, don’t  leave like a beaten dog. Lynn would do just that.

So my return to Pittsburgh gave Lynn a friendship in which to share her inner life as an artist, one that her husband mark, a lawyer, could not perform. I allowed  Lynn an outlet to communicate the subject closest to her heart. I was the dark brooding angel who rescued her from the isolation she  had chosen in opting for middle of the road normalcy.

 She had had her fill with scraping by in an existence so  close to the filthy gutters of Soho. The price for the highs  went beyond endurance. George Bouer’s blow-out,  burn-out scared both Jim and herself into leaving. Then with Jim’s  abrupt departure their first year back in Pittsburgh, Lynn  was set adrift without a  protector until Mark came along. He  made it possible for her to regain her composure, but below the surface she knew that she had compromised herself.

 Mark understood that my presence kept his wife sane, and  being that it wasn’t on his time, was sanguine enough to comprehend that the devil you know is better  than the devil you don’t. He didn’t mind sharing that part of Lynn that he  didn’t have recourse to. My engaging Lynn as a fellow artist  smoothed away much of the  anxieties that he would be at a  loss to cope with. Mark was both gentlemanly and  pragmatically selfish. In a strange way I helped keep the  little family on keel, and in  return was given harbor from my own apathy and distress.

 Leaving New York was a tortuous decision that replayed  continually like quitting an addiction. It left a missing  part that was numb like an arm slept on till the  circulation  stopped. You had to carry it about like a dead baby whom you  could not bury.

 You could not slake the desire for the dream abandoned. It  preys upon you incessantly. No sooner would you find a  moment of reprieve than you’d be  ambushed by some memory of a life once yours. To be painting in Manhattan full  throttle, even if ignored, and even possibly because you were ignored, was thrilling . When the East Village was no where to be, had made being there so much more exciting.  Once an area was gentrified, it lost its vital edge. It was brought back  into a world of rules and business and proper  behavior. 

 Perhaps it has to do with the passion of youth for an adventure that was still new. There were highs that you  could not get in any other way. Its loss would come  rushing  back to haunt you. In that sense you were a walking ghost,  neither of this world or the other- a little like those poor fellows back from Nam who could not  explain why life back  home seems so unsubstantial.

I  had that poison in me far worse than Lynn, but she knew it  deeply enough. To look at us no one could see what was amputated, but we knew something was  gone, something  important missing that once completed our lives and made it whole. I felt like some straggling soldier from the  surviving remnants of a defeated  army, wandering aimlessly  homeward indifferently.

 There was an emptiness that seemed endless. Lynn Understood that I was a convalescent, that I had signed myself out of  the war zone only to become a  displaced person.  Our friendship became a consolation easing the loss of a forfeited world that we no longer could claim as ours.

I  had been much more involved in that world, no matter my marginal status. As long as I remained there I was a player. For a dozen years I had vested my  identity being there. Now, I would have to reinvent myself. What was Pittsburgh but my birthplace and my old college town. That I loved its physical landscape  was an endearing compensation, but I felt  stranded in a lay-over.

 Sure, I still continued having exhibitions at Blue Mountain,  the cooperative gallery that until the early nineties I  remained a member. I had other showcases with the  Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition, but I came as a visitor. I was no longer one of them. I had become truly marginal.

 The real metamorphosis was internal. It would have its fits and starts, and in truth, it is not completed. It has  required a deeper understanding of what is significant  and  what is hubris. It takes pruning away an immature comprehension, and thereby getting to the essential point of  one’s life.

 However, living in New York does charge one’s energies to a fuller degree. It’s not a frivolity, but a very positive and stimulating engagement. That said, living and  painting in a  less pressured field does produce a different perspective towards one’s work. It requires much more self-sufficiency to be on the outside. The work  slows down to a quieter, more  internalized pace. One is not racing ahead to be the next headliner. One’s thinking more of eternal time far deeper  into the future and far deeper into the past.

It was discussions on this subject that we shared in the attic  studio, wedged in by the pitch of the roof and Lynn’s various projects scattered about on the finished  wooden floor. She did most of it squatting like a rabbit by its lair, her nose twitching as her nimble fingers worked a thread or a ball of clay.

It was soothing for me to visit this refuge nearby the edge of  the woods where we could stretch our limbs while Ajax circled round our path sloping downward past  strata of rock and denuded tree roots. Back in her studio I would take my habitual chair with its broken armrest. Lynn would be back on her haunches  studying her latest work as village women  would do from time immemorial- an act whose basic simplicity is a form of meditation, and one that finds comfort in a communal presence.

 That is something more imbedded in the female sensibility.  Most men prefer to do their art in solitude whereby they throw themselves into more extremes of the will,  gambling on  decisive thrust and parry as if attacking the object into submission. That kind of heroic action is the inverse of the quieter resolution.

 None-the-less, it behooves the artist to straddle both  capabilities and find a balance. Often there are two stages, one preparatory that materially forms the  platform upon  which the image can project itself. Then, as the ground opens to pointing the way, a different kind of assertiveness  is needed.

 Lynn would often hesitate to allow a boldness in execution  remain in full force. The very genius of her capable hands pushing and stretching the clay figures she  would disqualify by smoothing out and effectively erasing. She would do that  to her standing female figures that she had been so proud of, as if their primordial  coming into being was  insufficient reason to let them be.

I  would beg her to leave well enough alone, imploring her to  honor their special magic. But she would rebuke my support saying I was seeing more than there was,  that no one else imagined them with such a favorable eye. My retort would be: “Why do you give credence to the blind. You’re not doing this for them. They  don’t matter.” But she was hopelessly  dependent on approval from those around.

We were stranded in probably the most provincial of Jewish  mercantile class communities in the country. Both Darthea Speyer and Philip Pearlstein looked at  Pittsburgh as an apprehensible backwater. Philip would say to me: “To live in Pittsburgh as an artist is the kiss of death.”

 The lack of intellectual scope and the dread of adventure made a Jewish friend raised in New Jersey and Florida to  remark: “Who are these people! They’re not like the Jews I  know.”

 They would be so fearful to have an opinion that they were  always looking over their shoulder waiting to be told what to think. Their hesitancy before an uncertified  work always  came out negative. To be an artist in Pittsburgh was worse  than living in a wasteland inhabited by chimpanzees. If only  they were ferocious in their  individual tastes no matter how  gruesome, but no; the work they consider can be neither too  hot nor too cold. At best they might comprehend Bouguereau’s  bland  and pretty milkmaids or his modern equivalent in a stylized abstraction, but only if the artist holds an  established market value.

So of course Lynn suffered as a sane person with epilepsy might waking up to discover herself in a lunatic ward. That’s what  made our companionship so  rewarding for so long. There was no one out there to talk to, or at least, so few individuals  to whom we had access, that we might as well have been the  last survivors from a lost civilization.

I  needed to assuage my deperation; Lynn needed for a while a  mentor; and we both enjoyed a passion for the same subject. That our personalities complemented  the other made for a harmonious bond that was understood by all our friends.

I  obviously adored Lynn. She fit into my life the way a sister  completes her brother. Our natural comfort with the other  precluded the idealization that arrives  with infatuation of  the exotic other. Lynn was so much the girl next door. I  think from our very first conversation at the Broome Street  Bar, we recognized an ease  that promised friendship, and  whose gentle face of charitable welcome would prove to be  the foundation for the future.

At the time this approachability was observed by Jim, who I could see right then and there vowed to keep his wife at a  distance from both the man and the artist. (If  I could have expressed my real attraction at that very moment, it was George Bouer’s girlfriend Ellen who sat nearest to me. She  was taller and more willowy  than Lynn.)  Nor do I think  either of the fellows enjoyed hearing Lynn say at our introduction: “Richard Rappaport! Why you’re a legend.”

 That was followed by Jim saying something about our overlapping histories with Barbara Schwartz and of course Aladar. Everybody spoke of Aladar with a voice  chilled by an  awesome dread. I use that word the way it would have implied  its truly unique designation back in 1974, decades before  its generic overuse  squandered its special precision. For  Aladar indeed was awesome; he inspired respect the way a  coiled rattler aroused will bring a casual hiker into instant attention.

At the table we all laughed a bit too nervously as his name was mentioned, though George shrugged him off with half a smile. George had enough of his own demons  not to let Aladar’s  diabolical nastiness get the better of him. Ellen would soon  leave him and his hard drinking bouts to his own undoing. I  would not see her  again for another seventeen years when she passed through Pittsburgh to see Lynn. For years she had  lived out west. Her once creamy complexion had turned to  sandpaper by the sun.

 That visit was in the early nineties. It would have been  hard to imagine at that moment that soon my friendship with  Lynn would collapse. I know why, for I  triggered its  unfolding sequences that made impossible a return to  normalcy.

At some point I got obsessive, and what was once sanctuary  became bondage like any other addiction. Something was  missing of course. A natural communion  never took place;  while at the same time that precluded my being open to  someone else entering my life. It was becoming unnatural,  even malignant, and deep inside I wanted a sweeping change.

On one of our walks through the park where we paused among  young growth trees with the sunlight dappled through the  leaves, I breeched the subject of my being at an impasse:

 “Lynn, I don’t think there is anybody in the world who I  love more than you, but I don’t think I can continue like  this. I need to change my life.”

I  don’t remember her responding except to look at me  curiously, and we continued our way back to the house.

A  month or so later when I accompanied her taking her son Alex  for cloths to enter kindergarten, the sales girl mistook me  for Alex’s father saying to the boy:  “What does your daddy  think?” to which Lynn almost jumped on the girl saying: “That’s not his daddy!” The sales girl couldn’t care one way or another, and when  she left to get something I said: “What  was all that about?” Lynn then blurted out: “If you were Alex’s father, then I’d be married to you. Heaven’s no, no,  no!”  which was followed by an almost hysterical mocking laugh half inhaled as a prayer to ward off the devil.

I  just looked at her slinking away as if someone had called her a leper, while I felt like that was exactly how she was  describing me. We soon parted for the day, but  I remained stunned by her disclaimer. Was I so unworthy that she should be ashamed of my association and from an inconsequential  comment. The sales girl  didn’t know us from Adam. All Lynn needed to say was: “This is our friend, Richard.” if anything. But to me Lynn’s statement was consequential.  Wasn’t I her  best friend. Was I so repugnant that such a  mistake would bring her embarrassment.

 All of this went racing round in my mind. I was deeply hurt,  enough so that I stayed away, and I continued to stay away. I made myself absent. Lynn called my  mother. Still no response came from me when she sent a short note: “Richard,  I don’t understand why you have disappeared. Whatever it may be, I am here when you wish to tell me.”- Lynn.

 Friends of mine would keep asking me if I had seen Lynn yet.  They couldn’t believe I was still staying away: “Come on Richard, You and Lynn have been best friends for ever.  Whatever happened, just forget it.”

  But I couldn’t. Every time I considered it I would feel  hollow inside, my mouth tasting like sawdust. It made me numb. I couldn’t go back. It had died. That was the end.

 Twice in recent years I have mentioned this episode to  women, and in both cases they looked at me as if I were oblivious to what was apparent to them as they paused before  an image in their own memories.

rebecca full loft view copy
casual conversation full 30
afterlude1
detail artist's face Liberty Ave 1986 copy
Lynn dtail face red

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