Portraits & Passages

Chapter 25

Artist TEXT Ship of Fools NYC summer 1966 90

The fates lead him who will – him who won’t they drag.  - Seneca

“Ship of Fools”   

History Repeating Itself  - New York 1966


Detail of Amy and Barbara, from Somnambulists, 1966 --------- Detail of Michael Tucker, 1965

Until that fateful weekend in the summer of 1966 when I broke into new territory by painting “Ship of Fools”, I had always depended upon live models. After all, the  drama students at Carnegie Tech were always willing to pose for my paintings.

In “We Are All Somnambulists”, which is on a page of the 2002 Summer issue of “Artforum”, Amy Levet takes the leading position with her closest friend Barbara’s  face just behind hers. They had spoiled me. The Dramats not only would model, but could model. Here Amy strikes a pose that asserts her strong, purposeful  identity. This is an unwavering personality unlike the dreadful indecision and discomfort crossing the faces of people hoping for a vision more beautiful than they  are. Amy knew who she was and how she wanted to present herself, as did Michael Tucker when he posed for me.


Self Portrait with Mother and Brother, 1965, (and detail)

They made painting a pleasure, and it all happened like magic. Michael’s portrait took just forty-five minutes – one of the freshest acts of painting I had ever  managed. In that I followed Degas’ example. Because of the nature of the unprimed linen, the initial washes of drawn color were absorbed into the fabric,  leaving the top surface of the weave to mark the picture plane as the beginnings of the face emerged from its depths. Then, it was a simple matter to build up the  higher lit planes all the while Michael kept the same contemplative prospect. It was finished before I knew it – a total high!

Portrait of Michael and Laurie, 1965

Then, after graduating, I found myself isolated in New York City in an empty loft on West 74th Street loaned to me for the summer by another drama student who  would move in that September. He left only a mattress and a chair and a few cardboard boxes of books. The one on Japanese scroll paintings immediately caught my attention. I was not slow in recognizing the significance of one  reproduction illustrating the failed Mongol invasion of Japan that included commentary on its similarity to the Spanish Armada approaching England, which also got swept away by a typhoon.

For one thing, the United States was continuing its buildup in Vietnam, and I was waiting to be drafted. I had decided to forego the advantage of going to graduate  school. Without that deferment, my freedom and life were in jeopardy, but the only school that might have interested me was Yale, and its art department was geared  to first break you and then mold you to its enlightened ways. I was not interested in their form of progressive art. The artist in me had seen this hard choice as the lesser  form of self-denial. I was obviously very foolish, but the artist in me was already fed up with art schools and was not going to place myself under someone’s thumb,  even if that meant not to have the insider’s club approval if and when I survived whatever was to be.


Expulsion From the Garden, 1965

At Carnegie Tech I had been considered backward-looking, although admired for my portraiture. So it was a strange contradiction that I was criticized and in some  cases ridiculed when I experimented with “incomplete” and unfinished works even while Larry Rivers got applause for doing the same. And at twenty, I was equal to  the older man. But at Tech I was taunted for my floating heads that de-emphasized bodies as if in shadow, although downstairs in the Fine Arts Building they did it in  the theatre with spot lighting, not to mention El Greco’s heads stacked behind each other’s as if collaged.


Detail of Beth and Linda, from The Jewess Accused, 1966

With historical hindsight one could now look at my painting approach with such works as the scroll-like portrait of Michael Tucker and Laurie Jefferson as an  example of  a post-modern sensibility where the heads stacked vertically are surrounded and contrasted by a flat, collage-like application of white paint, palette  knifed hard against the pattern of wainscoting on an otherwise empty stretch of rabbit-skin glued natural linen. But my painting such as in this case of irrational  spreading of flat white was a product of intuition more than theory. Not that I wasn’t well versed in theoretical discourse as framed by the classroom dialectics of  Robert Lepper, whose importance at CarnegieTech was legendary, and that made evidently clear to me by Mel Bochner’s frequent noonday visits to Lepper’s studio at school.


Etching of Robert Lepper, 1965

But though Lepper was open to seeing the credibility of many different processes and venues, his purist bent begrudged my ‘eclecticism’ as he put it. That was a put -down, and it is curious that it came from him, but it washed over me like water over a duck’s back for I knew I was just a guest in his territory, and there was too  much insight into other possibilities to gain from our talks. I saw Lepper as much as Mel did.


Six Characters in Search, and Detail, 1965

Lepper was our Socrates who made us question the relevance of different approaches to representation, process and material. It will never be understood  how much he influenced Warhol except to say that the theoretical environment fostered by Lepper was primed to invigorate a unique sensibility – whether that  was a Warhol, Pearlstein, Bochner, or Borofsky. So I got through Lepper a view that was wide open and fresh. Yet, while there was friendship and affection, I was  never in his camp. If anything, I was a camp all to myself at Carnegie. For one thing, no one had the ability to follow me.

For a long time I had wanted to do a painting like Delacroix’s “Virgil Guiding Dante into the Underworld”. But at that moment when I discovered that book of  Japanese scroll paintings I had already been tempted by what might seem at first glance to be a very different influence. There was a black and white photograph in  “The New York Times” of Chagall painting his murals for the Lincoln Center spread out on his studio floor. They had much in common with what I saw in the scrolls.




Self Portrait, 1966, and Detail

For one thing, they felt liberating. I had gotten stale! Although I had attached a sense of credibility to painting from life, I felt it handicapped me. I wanted more  freedom. That sense of freedom was made all the more precious as I was waiting for the inevitable call-up of the draft. There was desperation in that wait as the time  to paint was running out. I was stubborn and very ambitious and totally absorbed by the fierce determination that to do a great painting would justify everything.

I had allocated my limited resources to maximize the gift of the rent-free studio for those two months. The two large canvasses that would be combined into one were  just primed and dry when the news announced the escalation of the war in Vietnam. It unleashed in me the decisive turning point that I needed as an artist as I jumped into calligraphic brush painting inspired by the scrolls.

Everything about that July weekend when we first crossed the DMZ to bomb the oil depots of Hanoi was intense. In New York, Mayor Lindsay walked Harlem,  and in my studio the extreme heat of 107 degrees, intensified by a wall of large windows facing west and without relief of air conditioning, lent an air of fateful  accountability as I pressed myself to mark the event. It was painted in just over a day- a primordial nightmare, heedless and swelling with stupidity.

The country was foundering. Unlike the armadas of the Spanish and Mongol, ours was swept by a storm of protest. None-the-less, it would take most of a decade to extract ourselves from the debacle.


Right Half of Ship of Fools, and Detail 1966


Four decades later in the aftermath of September 11, another regime, adamant in securing their geo-political agendas, once again steered the ship of state on a similar  reckless mission. I was a little slow to jump into the realization that my painting from 1966 could be a vehicle to express alarm over the consequences of our  foreign policy. It took the Patriots Act to bring it home. Then the recognition that we as a nation were returning to the authoritarian restrictions over expression that  had accompanied the Viet Nam era woke me from my slumber. In December 2001 issue of “Artforum” I placed an ad. It showed me in a photograph from 1966 standing besides “Ship of Fools” with a caption that closed with:

”It was a time when dossiers were made on anyone who openly had concerns about our foreign policy”


Artist with Ship Of Fools at University of Chicago, 1967


Three verticle We Are All Somnambulists 40
barbara behind amy calander copy 22

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