Passages Torn From Tapestries – Portraits Fading on Fresco
Enunciation (Detail) Oratory Mural, 1966
There are many winds full of anger, and lust and greed. They move the rubbish around,but the mountain of our true nature stays where it’s always been. – Rumi
Sailing Against the Wind
Paris to New York - The Early Seventies
Darthea Speyer, Jonathan Borofsky, Mel Bochner
When I first arrived on East Seventh Street, four months after heart surgery that flipped open my ribcage as if a cracked carcass of beef, I tried to carry myself like a proud animal. Or at least I did, once my strength returned from a debilitating illness that wrecked all my vital organs. Though the first impression I must have made on people who had not known me before was that of a weakling. Actually, I must have seemed more like a ghost. Certainly my appearance must have been the very opposite to the kind of vital, charisma that a Julian Schnabel or an Eric Fischl presented to the world when they first made the scene.
In truth, I never made the scene. I stayed in the margins. To begin with, because I am the kind who even if he were the center of a group would remain on the outside , and there was no group. There wasn't a cohesive fellowship from Carnegie Tech like those from Boston who surrounded Pat Hearn, or arrived as an ensemble from Cal Arts or Buffalo. That made a big difference. There was no support group, nobody to bring over to your studio another artist or critic or curator.
The Burial of Christ, 1964 (and detail)
I remember crossing paths with Jonathan Borofsky on Prince Street near South Houston Gallery where I was having my first New York show in 1974. But he refused to see it. Jonathan didn’t say that dismissively. He knew my work at school. I had done a great “Burial of Christ” my sophomore year when he was a senior. He knew I wasn’t an extra. Nor was he rude. He was cordial in his first greeting, but explained his need to keep to himself. He purposefully shunned any other work that might confuse his vision with other influences. He didn’t want to be contaminated!
However, he remained personally elusive too, and made no attempt to connect. So there would be no meetings over drinks, no gossiping, no discussions on art, nothing. I should have been an insider, but I was left out in the cold.
A dozen years later I visited Jonathan at his place in Malibu. Another friend from Tech, John Lilly, was fabricating his pieces, and I went for a ride up the canyon to Jonathan’s studio over looking the Pacific. Actually, I would visit a few times more over the next few years. But on this first visit as I looked at the assemblage of a sculpture of Jonathan in ballet drag, I couldn’t help think how much it was like a toy from China for the American market. It was completely common. There was no aesthetic component. Then I remembered how vacant his student work was.
If this had been a hundred years ago, Jonathan would have had a job making props for amusement parks. He was lucky his limited talents were parleyed through performance art. There’s no way they could have stood on their own. With Borofsky we have what Carol Armstrong calls “the bravura of the blissfully unskilled.”
What I remember most of that visit was John Lilly’s attitude had completely reversed itself from the time before he started collaborating with Jonathan. The belligerency and the vindictiveness in Lilly’s previous appraisal of Borofsky’s work vanished. Now Lilly had become an admiring sycophant, and with that he became oh so smoothly condescending towards me. He had completely disguised from himself that he was a hired hand.
Once again I got to see close up how those who were willing to subordinate themselves got to believe they were part of the inner circle. Yes, until they were no longer needed. Then a sorry understanding would descend on them. But for someone like me there was no pretending. I was my own man. Of course there is a price to that for everybody saw it. I was kept at a distance.
Portrait of Dean Brown, 1973 (and detail)
If I had a family in artistic circles it was the gay set designers and directors whom I inherited as friends from my brother, Bob, who was in the Drama Department at Tech the same time that I was there. The actors had always made themselves available to pose for me, so later my move to New York was prompted and supported by portrait commissions from these friends in the theater who eventually had whole collections of my paintings. But they didn’t have connections or interest in the art world. There I was on my own.
Portrait of Ron Strauss, 1975
Except for Leo Bates, a fellow painting student from Tech who did welcome me and act as a friend and guide, I had no other comrades in arms – no strong group to make our own following. The reason for that perhaps had to do with the diversity of interests that led each of us in different directions, and in consequence, separated us.
That was especially so for Mel Bochner, who saw in the mid-sixties narrowing down of the horizons of Modernism’s progressive venture of displacement the last available frontiers to claim. Mel jumped into theoretical conceptualism like a blind man grasping at straws for anchorage. There would be no ecumenical sharing of friendship to those outside one’s own sphere of reference nor good will possible towards those stepping back from late Modernism’s last trajectories. The race went to the swift and the mean. It was kill or be killed.
Page from "Art in America", February 1982 issue,
Joseph Accused, 1970
Nor was there any kind of entry that was truly welcoming that could have come as I made my passage from Paris to New York. Darthea Speyer, who never showed me in Paris, was at best ambivalent when she first sponsored me for a studio at the Cite des Arts, but she became not so subtly hostile after I was introduced to her brother, James Speyer, visiting from Chicago. I was completely unaware of his important position as curator of contemporary art at the Art Institute. I was dumbfounded to later learn that I was expected to sleep with him if he so chose – that that was a prerequisite to be considered for a chance to exhibit with Darthea. Or, at least, that was what I would be told as hearsay, and it explained what followed.
For I was just polite and unassuming as I shock hands and said "nice to meet you." With that, he frowned and turned his back on me. A week or so later, Darthea said to me in that condescending voice so characteristic of her: "Your friend Barbara (Schwartz) will do fine, but you, you're going to have a hard time in the art world."
I was speechless. I was not someone who gushed over people I most respected; something I saw as demeaning to both parties. Calder never expected that from me or anyone else, and I loved Sandy like he was the grandfather I never had. My friend Jim Morrissey and I used to go down to their watermill for weekends. We were welcomed like children of the family. I remember Sandy and I alone in the barn changing into our bathing suits. There was complete trust and acceptance. My memories are filled with love and gratitude for their kindness and affection. But Alexander and Louisa Calder were very generous and sympathetic people. That was not the case of Darthea Speyer.
When Darthea came to the Cite des Arts for the last time, she was very much taken by "Joseph Accused" which she offered to place in the tiny annex storefront across from her gallery if it could have fit. But she emphatically refused to consider it for her main space on rue Jacques Callot. It never was shown.
So I returned to the states without the kind of approved certifications needed to open other doors. Three years in Paris producing what I saw as my most creative body of paintings left me nothing to negotiate with. Instead of a triumphant homecoming in the spring of 1971 I was just another young painter returning broke. The grant that had allowed me to live in Paris was as the runner-up to the Rome Prize. But in Paris I had to fend for myself. I was not leaving the American Academy in Rome with two years of professional and social connections that at the very least might lead to teaching opportunities. Nada, there was nada.
The Resurrection (detail), 1969