Portraits & Passages
A generation that neglects the past becomes unmoored in the universe. Believing its assumptions undeniable, it disengages from a dialogue with its forebears; its goal to dislodge the culture from its legacy to become the godhead. Beyond the mirage of splendor, its devotees float in a Hieronymus bubble upon the thickening shallows of institutional observance.
Ship of Fools
Ship of Fools - Detail, left half
There is in man a fate that lends power to his life. And by assigning the right place to life and to fate, brings the two into harmony, and puts his fate on a firm footing. – I Ching.
As a young man I had had this notion of being an outsider, aloof from an art world that I didn’t understand. Even from that distance it repelled and attracted me. I decided to take the long road having no idea what was in store for me. In my mind I petitioned God that I would be willing to struggle if only he would let me be a great artist. I tell people: “Be careful what you pray for! ”
When I think of all the doors that closed in my face it’s hard for me not to be bitter. It only leads to remorse. If only I could be just sad and chagrined over the whole comedy of what I witnessed close range and at a distance of all those players who made the art world the destination for their dreams of glory – I included. But it’s not just the artists whose dreams were made or shattered. Think of all those collectors and dealers and curators who sought to find merit by touching the grail. And let’s not forget those members of the curia – the writers and critics solemnly parading to and from the galleries – the most important showing just a hint of red. You can bet they all think they could sit on a throne along with the prophets and sibyls high up on the Sistine Ceiling.
Don’t think that I am excluding myself from those rushes of hubris that come and go depending on the moment and the state of one’s self-hypnosis. For we all think that we’re leading the charge of the light brigade, bathed in glory, intoxicated by the movie we see ourselves in. That is when we’re not in a down mode. Then despair drowns all hope, and the shabbiness of our careers shows us what scuttled wreckage we’re drifting on. Except we’re not as heroically beautiful as the castaways of “The Raft of the Medusa”; we’re just cast away. What a madhouse bunch of lunatics pushed out to sea. No wonder I love the image of Ship of Fools.
Ship of Fools (detail), 1966
Now if I own up to all this madness as mine as much as anybody’s, please understand that I was born into the mold. Long before I could possibly have seen glamour magazines, to which my mother never subscribed, nor had even the concept of stardom and fame, I had this self-generated desire to be a great artist. But at age one and a half!
Where could that have come from I cannot say. Is there such a thing as old souls, that I was reborn from a previous artistic life? After all, we are just one link in the chain, but if I weren’t here, or someone like me, the chain would be broken. Here we go again with the delusions of grandeur that throughout my life people have tried to squash – all except a very special few who crossed my path and did what they could to befriend me. That in itself took a good deal of self-assurance on their parts and a generosity of spirit so as not to feel threatened by the flowering of my ambitions.
Herbert Simon, 1987-G Gus Brown, 1966
Of course one could understand that coming from a world-class achiever such as Herbert Simon, the “Father of Artificial Intelligence”, who, it seems, must have gotten a kick from my escapades along with my production of paintings that spilled over into his house through the years.
Then there have been others like my close friend Gus Brown, who is not famous, but who has known me for close to fifty years, starting when he first witnessed my rising star at the fifth grade Tam O’ Shanter art classes at the Carnegie Museum and later as fellow art students at Carnegie Tech. I may mention him again, but the point here is to emphasize that the generosity of his friendship is supported by a true sense of justice and tolerance. I will also say that Gus is African-American, and that his father was a janitor at Carnegie Tech which enabled Gus to go to school there. His father was also a minister, and it was through his parents’ guidance that led Gus to find pride in himself and discard jealousy from his motives. I will also say, so as not to turn him into a saint, that Gus Brown is a thorough scoundrel, though mostly a playful one, and that for the last decade and a half, he has been my sounding board.
After graduating we had not seen each other for twenty-five years, so it was a surprise to later learn how much he had witnessed of my very early work, to what extent people spoke of it, and how he had appraised it. In that respect, he has been a source of spiritual sustenance in helping me understand the years of neglect, but also to look back in joy over the blessing of all those years of painting.
Artist with Somnambulists at University of Chicago, 1967
Outside of the happiness of being praised, there is the happiness of addressing all souls that can understand yours…so it comes to pass that all souls meet in your painting. What is intoxicating is to live in the mind of others. - Delacroix
For many years now Gus has tried to remind me that the reward of art is in its doing and that it is best to drop the need of approval from outside oneself. And yes I understand that very well. But only recently I have confessed another ambition that from very early on came with the territory – that I wanted my art to be an active agent in the world for some noble purpose beyond being beautiful. When exactly that sense of purpose evolved in my psyche I can’t remember, except that it surfaced very early, though it wasn’t clear what I would do other than I felt a calling that would become evident with time. I think it was there by the time I was in second or third grade, and now that I am sixty you would think I could just say it out loud.
Babel, A Tale of Mice and Men, 1958
But at the risk of annoying those who may be reading this, I don’t wish to articulate it or define it verbally for it is not a construct but comes and goes as the occasion demands. All I will say here for the moment is that when the viewer stands before a great painting, that moment becomes one with eternity as if he or she stands before all of creation. Not that the painting represents all of creation, but it affords the viewer a bridge to a heightened appreciation of the majesty of it all and to look upon the present with greater acceptance, generosity, and thankfulness. In other words, it acts as a moral agent. My problem with glib works is that they replace wonder with a pseudo irony whose predictable sophistication leaves no room for affirmation. We can take a path to something better.
It is not an issue of abstract verses representation but something that touches the subconscious mind even when its subject is unstated on the surface. And not every work can or should address some socio-political event. If one has a mission, it should not mean that one becomes a Leon Golub doing one after another on the banality of evil. It makes the work clichéd, a fetish, and a brand-name product. That defeats its message by overexposure and repetition when one work or just a few can be worth more to the world than twenty or thirty repeats.
If one sees an art career as a vested interest in the future, than what we are leaving for unborn generations are testaments to what were our concerns while alive. Not everything in life sits on the heavy end of experience. Some things that make us human, and happy to be so, are of lighter perceptions, and they too merit voice that those in the future can relate to the understanding that humankind hasn’t changed much, and that ancestors and descendants are not abstractions but closer than they imagine and need this communication that we call art.
Now in order to bridge that which might divide one from future generations, I see that it would be important to present a full spectrum of what it is to be human and an artist living in the last half of the twentieth century and into the beginning of the next. To offer up some autobiographical portraiture, some traditional and iconographic images that then mutate and project into abstraction or almost abstraction – all of which spiral through decades – seems to me a very rich orchestration to bestow on the future, and one that opens in many directions instead of narrowing down to one set of formulations.
For it used to be seen that the journey of an artist, from the earliest attempts that indicate an observing eye through the conclusion of a lifetime found in the re -ordering of the formal elements that express that world, is a story of a purposeful life. I believe the fullness of that journey is as important an inspiration as any conclusive invention that takes an art form to another place. For those whose hearts ach for their own journey that example may offer both the challenge and the understanding that each of us must try it his or her own way – that the most profound effort is needed to remain whole and true to oneself, and in the end it is the story that counts of an individual summoned to the pursuit of a mystery.
Like the autobiography of a writer, there is immediacy in the life’s work of a painter that informs with disarming candor. For each work is a carrier of visual, mental, and emotional reflection – a communication from the mind of the artist who has distilled and reformed an image of the world for the purpose of sharing intimacy, meaning, and revelation.
Now-a-days the marketplace has insisted on the narrow vision so that every potential collector gets their copy. It’s what Philip Pearlstein boasted of as the hard decisions that New York artists must make. The artist then becomes a specialist in variations on a theme, which would be natural enough to do for the short while, but gets a little flat when stretched too far. It does enhance optimum production and frees the artist of time consuming wrong turns along the way. But in the end what is left to the future!
Or, for that matter, what of the future still needs to relate to that of the past? I’m speaking here not just of the recent past, or even to that of the turning of the 19th century into the 20th that at the time seemed so astonishingly new. No, I’m speaking of the great visual language of human-kind that threads its way through the millennium, surfacing periodically with the magic freshness of direct execution of intention that marked man’s first great discovery of the power inherent in hand drawn painting. There is nothing comparable in spirit that communicates with an enhanced body awareness than the work of that lineage that stretches from the greatest cave painters to Picasso.
Ellie With Caroline, 1963
And it is amazing how the magic in that dancing brush is repeatedly thwarted by the hardening calcification of paint like some wall-to-wall veneer suffocating inspiration. The great dilemma is the confusion that craft is held as art, or in many cases held in esteem above art instead of being in support of art. In painting the material of the medium should support the communication of the vision, and that applies to the process of doing it as well, but the mistake is it is the message.
I do not think that is how Pollock, deKooning, or Rothko approached their work. Each had honed the image to an essential form, but in retrospect can we really say they are abstract painters. I don’t think so.The best of these three artists happens because the world is present. Their subject is the sensation of filtered sensory experience that is memory itself. And like them I believe there is still a chord that can be touched within us, and I think it can anchor us.
I had come of age at that period in late Modernism when there was nothing but arguing over protocol. It was an overly dictated situation. Art practice was dissected and compartmentalized, increasingly regimented, and then ultimately taken over as a form of buffoonery resembling carnival. They had turned it into some kind of contest as if it were a spectator sport like going to the races and betting on a horse. Each successive phase made obsolete the previous one. But what happened to forms that spoke of continuity and that had endured through the ages. That was swept aside as if irrelevant.
What do you do when you arrive on the scene at the most unfavorable moment possible? You persevere. If you’re lucky you have some good come to you, and the rest you handle as best you can. In hindsight we all could have done a better job of it.
Here, then, is my story of why I failed in the art world – no holds barred. Of some of the people that I write about I can forgive because they were only blind. They could not do otherwise than what they did, but as their lives were intertwined with mine I must for the record state things as I see them. My intention is not malicious but the truth as much as I can be objective about it. For the others who were just plain mean towards me whether that came from nastiness in their makeup, or anger embedded in their own lack of self-comfort, to those people I cannot extend forgiveness. I would for my soul’s sake forget all about them were it not for their place in the woven fabric of my life’s work which is inseparable from my life.
I suppose even they who are through with me cannot always unwind those threads without a little remorse. I don’t know. But that’s their problem. And the grave might not entirely free them either. History sometimes has a chance to even the score.
Baba, drawing of the artist's great-grandmother, 1954
Portrait of the Artist's Mother (detail) 1965
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.” -Jesus
The old adage: "Spare the rod and spoil the child" is apt for describing how my parents let me be my own person. I blame it all on them. From the very beginning I knew I was going to be an artist. So when at age one and a half I reprimanded my mother for being so stupid as to bring home a coloring book when I needed plan paper to do my own drawings, she just said to herself: "I've got a character!"
Some people are born with a silver spoon in their mouths, and some are born with a destiny of their own. They can't lie to themselves if they should waver from that which their heart has set for them. Better if you put them up against a firing squad. That's just the way it is. It goes back to what I said of being one's own person. Uncertain people, who make up the majority of every group no matter class or distinction, cannot allow the disturbance that an independent person brings to their world. They must do everything they can to keep such unpleasant people out. It's that simple. It always has been.
Etching of the Artist's Mother (detail), 1966