Si Newhouse and the Postmodern Before Its Time The Early ‘70s
Understand I am speaking spiritually only: The issue I have with Si Newhouse is really the biggest one. What does a man stand for? It's not how smart, how rich or even how generous one is, but whether the motivating principle in one's life is of noble purpose. It is only then that a desire for justice guides one's actions. I can only speak of my history with Si with that question in mind along with understanding how important his involvement with high art is to his personal identity.
Si Newhouse gave up horse jumping on his father's orders. He was needed to help run the business, and the risk of injury was too great. So Si turned to collecting art as a substitute recreation. It was also his re-creation. By pouring his icy intelligence into the ownership of great art Si imagined himself to be someone other than just a businessman. The caliber of his acquisitions is testament to his judgment as well as to his pocketbook. His possession of masterpieces made him feel wise beyond being just powerful.
It's his way of being beautiful, even spiritual. For the pixie dust radiating from being so close to such art anoints him with a sense of authenticity. That is of course a word often used to describe the vision of the artist, though each generation produces a different form.
So when one looks back to the agendas ruling advanced art in the early 70's, a point that made Si the collector he decided to be, one can understand that to be confronted with a hybrid instead of a pure, formal art would not easily be accepted. He had embraced a strictly puritan program whereby the conceptually abstract and minimal dominated whatever was sensually apparent.
The intellect was manifest. High art was a separate sphere beyond the common. So when Si came to me to voice his discomfort with the idea that there was an anthropomorphic motif behind the abstract painting I had loaned him he had good cause. One could not dispute his right to object, his dismay.
Except, there was one major problem inherent in the condition of the moment; minimalism and conceptualism had completed their assignment. Even by the late sixties that territory was explored fully. There was nowhere to go. The pendulum was already heavy with pressure for a return.
When the roll of history changed what was to be accepted in art practice there was no recall from Si. After all, he had by accident encountered an artist ahead of his time. And again by accident, he had been instrumental in The Public Theatre hangings of the Joseph Panels. Yet Si Newhouse made no move, no one call to correct the circumstances of my being stranded.
Etching - Landscape, 1963
The Angel of Death Passing Over 1973
I remember once Pam heckled me: "You blew it with my father. You just weren't cool." And I retorted: "Someday your father will be embarrassed for the way he ignored me. Even if it takes till we're both dead." "No he won't. Why should he! Why would he care at all then what people think!" "Oh yes he will. I know your father well enough. He'll care even from the grave."
A Fleeting Glimpse
Granted it is difficult to be an impartial commentator when one is also a player in a drama. Still, on returning to the preceding pages well over a year since the writing, I am struggling for a more balanced and objective understanding why Si Newhouse would not remember and re-evaluate his own role with my painting once the post-modern turn-about came to validate it.
I believe it was a problem of spiritual perception, and in turn, incomprehension of who was this artist Richard Rappaport, who for over half a year sat across from him at his dinner table once a week in the company of his wife and daughter discussing our mutual interest, art, and whose painting hanging upstairs in his house ultimately earned his protest and disapproval, and upon his privately explaining his discomfort to me, I removed the disputed work from his walls in reasonable time.
Years later, various people chose to see my taking the painting away as an act of willfulness on my part; whereas, what other choice did I have but to embarrass us both by his needing to ask that it be done in stronger terms. Both Si and Victoria were gracious to visit my exhibition at South Houston Gallery six months later, and indeed, one of the paintings caught their attention favorably. Unfortunately, it had been promised to my former sister-in-law Regina in trade for an earlier work that she bought, so that precluded anything possible further from them.
Even Regina, unfairly and quite stupidly, after I had honored faithfully our previous agreement that went against my better interests, would taunt me afterwards saying that I wanted to flaunt my independence to Si Newhouse’s face; how absolutely far from my wish or intentions!
At that moment in time, it was painful not to gain Si’s favor, but there wasn’t animosity operating; I just had to step away from his indifference. What hurt was that I was still so far removed from being taken seriously. But the real damage was brought out in my rupture with Pam that would not be mended for another four years, though the joyous playfulness would never return.
However, what did become an issue six years later was Si’s forgetting me once what he protested in my work became theoretically acceptable. It wasn’t the expectation of an act of altruism from Si, but rather the hope of his comprehending the relevance of my early arrival into post-modern sensibility as that of an ignored principal that disappointed. It wasn’t forthcoming. I don’t believe it was caused by his being intentionally mean, but by an indifference fostered by his dependence on the authoritative system of attributing value to emerging artists.
Nonetheless, that indifference is also the result of something allusive if not inexplicable. But for lack of better recourse, I suggest the impossible question of how the spiritual dimension in his view of the world would apply to his visual acuity as well as to his accord to compassionate principles.
From my limited but not inconsiderable experience with Si Newhouse, I suggest we drop the word compassion. I don’t believe that word is operable here as I understand it. To me it is exactly that connection to the spiritual that seemed critically missing from his view of my work. Granted, that demanded a decidedly vast jump for him to make in my case, and as Pam would later say, I wasn’t her father’s friend; I was hers. He didn’t owe me that consideration. Nonetheless, if anything of mine should survive into the future, this is for the record.
By the time we met I had at age twenty-nine already completed three distinctly powerful bodies of work. I was hardly a novice, though I looked considerably younger than my age and was unimpressively assertive in presenting myself. That had much to do with the heart surgery of the year before coupled with struggling to get by and have time to paint. But also it had to do with my entering an experimental period where I was trying to juggle several different viewpoints simultaneously. It was that spanning contradictory objectives that made people uncomfortable in believing there was a committed artist before them.
Then, when viewed next to the mature final resolutions of the painters Si collected, how would I not seem like just a beginner in his eyes, especially seen from that moment in the early seventies that critically pigeon-holed what was acceptable. Arriving as a friend of his daughter, I had not come by way of introduction from any of the dealers that were at his bid and call, and who had groomed him to become the leading collector of the art world. The paradox was that Si Newhouse was placed too high to be of help to me.
Obviously, Si Newhouse was already bogged down in the material dimension of owning and running a vast enterprise; so one might imagine that he has tried to find in art, in part at least, a form of meditative disengagement from his demanding world. But I believe the very seriousness that he emphasizes in his approach to collecting: the aspect of investment by the shire enormity of the valuations involved, the social status that it endows, and the predominance of theoretical justification defining its reception handed down to him by critical authority, all contribute to an acutely worldly engagement.
But please don’t think I’m trying to discredit the beauty of his involvement with the purely aesthetic experience. Si Newhouse had assembled an incredible chapel to the transcendental in art at the time that I had the privilege to enter his home back in 1973. Of course he had to be in tune to its higher call to the spirit. It was staggeringly jolting to be there. To some people it may have seemed overly cerebral, but if one knew how to slow down and enter calmly a quiet place in one’s soul, it was a deeply touching experience, and I think Si and Victoria understood my appreciation.
The collection at that moment had reached its first complete resolution. It was enormously uplifting. Once, I came a few minutes too early before a dinner party that I might have some quiet time in the main gallery and startled Victoria downstairs. The butler, having let me in, led me to the ground floor dinning room where he handed her a yogurt. You can imagine how stupid I felt intruding upon her, but she shrugged it off good-naturedly as of no import as she asked if I would like a yogurt as well. I declined and after a few more words left her to ascend to the second floor galleries while awaiting Pam’s arrival from her mother’s home uptown.
We are in a society that romanticizes worldly success. But that success broke Rothko and his buddies from the beauty of their realizations. Once those canvasses were worth great sums of money, something far more rewarding was forever lost. Gone were freedom, adventure, discovery, and most important mystery. What was to free them enslaved them. They all suffered suffocation. After all those years of trying to get in, they were desperate to get out.
The system made their success a paradox that punished the most sensitive on achieving their goal. That was exactly what Pam pleaded with me to understand all those years ago. She was not wrong. She knew well enough its illusion; except, that it was necessary for me to grow into that realization through living it out my own way. It would be just as hard for her, in her unique circumstance, to deal with this dilemma as it would be for me. Accordingly, we would punish each other for our own imperfect performance, as we would from our own distinct trajectories bounce off the mountain of her father’s megalomania.
In hindsight I see my mistake. I wanted Si to be someone he could not really be. Yet even back then I saw him as a lamb dressed in wolf’s clothing. For all his enormous power, he was dependent on outside opinion. His decisions were passed down to him by those in critical authority.
More independence would have required more willing receptivity to the unknown. If anything, it depends on trusting the voice within and letting go of proofs and preconceptions. Again, it’s a spiritual process. The gate to art just as the one to Heaven can only be passed by humbly listening to the quiet song of the voice within , not by assertive action. If only Si, outside the world of business, could have let his more gentle side guide him. I had seen it just fleetingly; then shut away. He would not.