Portraits & Passages

Chapter 1

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!
 

                     

Ellie, 1963

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.
 

                                      

                           

Candice, 1965

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.
 

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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

 

ORANGE ETCHING MOTHER SQUARE 40
mabel first calander copy 35
joseph  my project text copy 7
artist in loft horizntal WORK OF MOURNING 50
LEAP INTO  ARMS OF  ETERNAL me 50
ARTIST AS OTHER MIRRORING EVIL 70
ABYSMAL BLUE SKELETON 40
Hands of Accused copy 60

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