Beginnings & Endings

Chapter 2

self rejected rip the scab text horizontal copy

 The Pursuit of Seriousness:
David Edward Byrd

Studying to be a figurative painter naturally leads one to  prophets and heroes and other immortals. If it’s in the blood, then from very early on one is attracted to such  paintings- images from the  great figurative tradition that  are not necessarily icons of one’s own religion or culture.

So at age seven or eight one doesn’t comprehend their context,  though a concept of seriousness becomes a standard understood.

In the pursuit of art, without seriousness one cannot arrive at truth. That one has no idea how hard that goal could be is the benefit of youthful ignorance. Yet, in looking back, would one have done it differently? Hardly!

Most peoples’ point of view derives from the cultural moment  that dictates how one should conduct one’s life. Cultures wind through cycles where one moral imperative is favored  over  others. In consequence, what was once admired is sometimes misunderstood and sometimes demeaned.

 That has happened to the “romantic” perception. Here we must  carefully separate the philosophical attitude from the term as it applies to a form of style and superficiality. We are  not  speaking of flamboyant, capricious excess. What one is addressing here is a deeply considered, heartfelt approach to seriousness in art, though there is no certain road to  that goal. It must be  invented anew in each instance.

 Nowadays, the skeptics see the romantic as nave and at odds  with the pragmatic realities of the art world. Surely one  would find an accommodation if one could. But if not, so be it. It is not the  primary goal to paint for this season’s  fashion or give up one’s voice and join the throng of carnival lemmings racing for the cliff.

 For without serious purpose one’s life degrades to  meaninglessness, nor does one wish for martyrdom. That is not a proof; though people on the outside see how much one is giving up, but  don’t see how much one has. When they do it brings out their rancor. Only an understanding of others’  incomprehension is useful not to be alarmed by their  reactions.

 For a price may be required that some more oriented to  comfort or status would see as daunting, while still others,  more self-righteous, might see as justifiable deserts for foolishness.

It is the uncertainty of the path that attracts derision and  gives one the appellation “romantic”. But one doesn’t set  out to wear a wreath of thorns. It is just the luck of the  draw whether one finds  support and admiration or attracts hostility and neglect. It’s the genius of life that one  attaches to. If that is too passionate, call me an outlaw stranded in a wilderness of sleepwalkers.

  

Red Skies horizontal loft me

In writing a memoir, as in life, perception spirals until we  get to a place of understanding. Even as we look back in  time the cycle is advancing, turning us towards a more  complete vision. In telling  it we may become a little more humble as we reflect on the opaque differences in people.  For what is essential to one person is not so for the other.

 Misunderstandings present themselves without meaning harm but simply as the inevitable mirroring of the self. We  define ourselves by contrasting the example of what we are  not. Where  essential natures are very different, deep motivations in the other are almost impossible to translate  to oneself. That’s when we make divisive opinions that only  lead to resentment.

So it’s best to use caution in making pronouncements of others. However, there are times when it is unavoidable as in describing an artist’s work. If said by one artist of  another, judgments of both  come into play. Where one artist is Yin, and the other is Yang, it’s a difficult dialogue for sure. If only we could express utter wonderment about the other. Period, but we don’t. Humans make it  so difficult for themselves.Let me explain to you. I had never planed to  write this until David insisted.

David Edward Byrd

David-Edward-Byrd
 

 What happened when David Byrd gave up painting and became committed to a career in illustration was a decisive step towards expediency and away from seriousness. It was perhaps a  natural place for his particular talents and sensibility,  but it was not inevitable.  However, after four decades, his move was more true to himself than not. In this we could not have been more different.

 Recently David Edward Byrd came through town. If you don’t  know his name, you may have seen his posters. He must have done over a hundred for Broadway alone since “Godspell”. A  few of us who live in Pittsburgh met him on campus. He was invited to speak as a member of the class celebrating their  fortieth reunion. David began his presentation with projections of the large  figurative paintings he did at Carnegie Tech. I had forgotten how powerful they were.

Red Skies artist leaning by two paintings

If there was anybody back then whose work stood up to mine, it  was David’s, yet we never acted towards the other as rivals. We knew what it took to do what we did. Instead, we were  like brothers-at-arms, each preparing to go out in search  for the grail, comrades saluting the other: “Good luck my  friend. We will surely find it.” 

 Along with the projected early work David gave as a preamble  to this retrospective lecture the recollection that he had wanted to be the next Francis Bacon, but found himself, like all of us did  in one way or another, cleaning underwear in a Korean laundry in Boston.

 Recalled to New York by fellow schoolmates in drama assembling a team effort in musical and theatrical production, David soon discovered a much more welcoming  reception by those from  the world of illustration than the hazing of snubs and jeers that figurative artists faced in the mid-sixties by the then established avant-garde. For  David the choice was easy. He took a road of  least  resistance. No one could blame him.

As a classmate at Tech, David had attracted in his own  low-keyed manner almost everybody to him. In one way or another he was everyone’s friend. He exuded such an  approachable ease that  no one felt threatened in his  presence. If anything, David was a beacon of safe harbor. In  the competitive atmosphere of the College of Fine Arts,  David not only was admired for his talent, he  seemed not to  have an adversary at all. He was in a unique position. He was beloved.

So when the time came, David’s closely knit community of former schoolmates saved him from his floundering state and called him to join their collaborative commune centered for a while on a  farm outside of New York. When Steven Schwartz assembled a group of Tech dramats for “Godspell”, David was  asked to do the poster. Then the Fillmore East pulled the resources of  David’s group, and his career was launched.

 After that, was there any time for remorse. David was in the  fast lane. There was no time to look for an exit even if he had second thoughts. For here he was, once again, petted and admired.  Why would anybody wish to be a beggar in the art world when one found a haven for one’s talents elsewhere. One would have to be a fool! Unless one loved what one had set one’s heart on.

 Did one paint because it was seen to be glamorous, or because it felt glamorous, more than glamorous, miraculous! But it goes beyond feeling good. Being social animals we wish to engage  the world. But for the artist that must  arrive with discrimination. One doesn’t throw oneself away  on trivia. One’s belief in oneself depends on one’s belief in the work. Then and only then does one find joy.                                         

The Scarlet R
 

 About two months after his trip to Pittsburgh I telephone David in L.A. He was enthusiastic about my memoir: “ Gosh, it reads like a relentless pursuit with everybody in town  after you, and the  hounds snapping at your heals. It could be a book; it could be a movie; it could be in “Vanity Fair”. It’s so good that it needs to be made better.”

I  thanked him and concurred:  “That was my hope except I doubt  that it would ever be seen in “Vanity Fair” after all that I wrote about the Newhouses - and they own “Vanity Fair”. I’d have to  go to the Hearsts.”

Then David said something that startled me:  “You understand of course that you are a romantic. I think  you need to acknowledge that in your writing… After all, we went to a Beaux-Arts school. We wanted a Beaux-Arts success. But that  didn’t exist anymore. You must agree that was a  very romantic wish that you had not given up. You are a  romantic, Richard, and you need to address that.”

David’s delivery is very articulate despite a mild Southern drawl extending the barest lisp breathed in a nasal singsong humming. David is very perceptive. Sagacious would be a good  word. He cuts like a surgeon. Even before getting off the  phone I felt a little dazed, even distraught as I wrestled  with David’s incisive judgment of me; although much of my discomfort has to do  with my aversion to being confined by  definition.

 But it also had shades of meaning reminiscent of Philip Pearlstein’s pernicious slant on my work. Philip was going for the jugular. I don’t believe that was David’s intent;  however, his wisdom  covers his own carefully laid to rest  issues that he may very well have hid from himself.

 While David started close to where I did, he dropped it in a  very short time. His insistence on labeling the proviso “romantic” to my text has more to do with his abandoning painting than my  resolve to stay the course. Unless what I  believe to be an essential aspect of being human and how  that conditions one’s life is so far removed from possibility that it is an impossible dream. But  I don’t buy  that for I have done what I set out to do.

 For it seems to me that the word “romantic” is David’s own  disclaimer that he wishes to place in my own mouth. He has asked me to make an admission of self-denial as if I were  someone who  had not let go of an extravagant fantasy. But I  think David has mistaken the goal for the journey. I had  been endowed with a gift that could only be enjoyed in the  adventure. I felt entitled to see  where it would lead. I felt blessed. Why would I relinquish that! 

Ellie close face painted from sketch

David was not content to say: “Richard, you have been true  to yourself.” He did not use instead of romantic the word spiritual as a qualifier to how I have followed in my path.  One cannot refute  that. You either are spiritual or you are  not. Or substitute the word idealist; then you have someone  following a noble pursuit. Leave in the word romantic, and  you are saying the fellow is a madman.

 For the word romantic has taken on a pejorative connotation as if it were a behavioral aberration. Ridicule and intimations of folly plague the poor imbalanced fellow marked romantic, especially as  that road has its share of difficulties. Still, what life doesn’t have its price to pay. The choice depends on whether one pays for an eternal pleasure or a momentary one; pay early or pay later.

 Long ago David ejected from deep inside himself a dream. We can take that point of divergence where David took the fork  in the road that led him to where he is now, and we can follow  likewise my route that continued on the path to where  I am today. And what we have is two lives: one led looking  for the voice within and the other looking for the answer outside the self.

 Given the uncertainty of life, one course of action may not prove to be more certain than another. Reality is unstable. Better please the voice within. They can’t take that away! To me, that seems  far more reasonable than any promises from the outside world. One just has to understand that there is no safety net.

So with his request, David is justifying himself at my expense. He has placed my path in some parenthetical distance from  the sane and the sensible. It is a term of derision. Yet  this artist  designated romantic follows a great tradition  that carries a form of example from one generation to another, not some idiosyncratic, incomprehensible journey as if I were a deluded hermit caged and  self-tormented on some remote, barren promontory. I’m not some leper that people  need to run from. Place the blame on a confused culture, not on the artist.

As Mel Bochner once said to me in the Prince Street Bar back in the fall of 1972: “I’m just doing my thing.” can’t David just say to me: “Richard, you are doing your thing.” Period!

So possibly David feels at a disadvantage by the comparison as  if I intentionally administered a rebuff. My brother Bob would get that way with me. Bob would get angry, more than angry-  vicious. But it’s not I who reprove them. It’s just  that they understand I follow an ideal, and I haven’t  banished it from my soul. That truth gives me a glimpse of  serenity that they could never  possess. They resent me for  it. They need to berate me for the foolishness of my  struggle.

 Bob was the art director for the Miss Universe pageant. For over a decade he was going to every capitol in Asia, toasted, petted, flown in army helicopters over Thailand and the Philippines.  He would scream at me: “Do you think anyone  cares what you consider art. There are a billion people who see the pageant. They couldn’t care less about how high and  mighty you think your art is.”

 Yes, a billion people may see a show, and tomorrow they have  forgotten it. We do not know what will be. We do know the joy in working on what one loves. So it is best to do the  work and  let go of predictions, unfounded hopes, and  needless despair.  It may be discarded or squandered or it  may be valued. But the pursuit of serious art is not a  hollow enterprise. If I have set myself  apart, I do not  expect others to follow in my path, nor do I go out of my way to chide them for what they have devoted themselves. I just am who I am, and they get restless with me.

 Once someone read my numbers, and I suppose it explains the discomfort I give others for I embody inescapable principles: The Soul of the High Priestess and The Personality of the  Emperor. In my silence people still read the standard by which I live, and they get angry.

 But their real anger is within themselves. They are dispossessed. They had traded their talents to the  exigencies of the moment. They lived well and enjoyed a sense of empowerment. But with the  generational shift has come disenfranchisement, and whether slowly or quickly they  are let go. Now they are faced with a different harvest. The bargain doesn’t feel so good. They are stranded  in the quicksand of meaninglessness for the culture they joined is  a throwaway culture. Everyone gets discarded.

 Perhaps it seems that I have not done much better. But what I do know is one must find one’s own anchorage, and it is found in believing in one’s path. I have loved to follow in  the footpaths  of the great ones. There is something magical  in keeping their example alive. No matter the living  conditions in which I found myself, I lived in the enchanted garden. I link hands with those who  came before and who will come after.

 Enchantment is everything, all else pals. Keep your golden  lifestyles. There is nothing more thrilling than sumptuously nursing a work to that moment when it becomes alive. It’s  the delight  and ease of coming into one’s estate and to find a place where one belongs. It’s the reward of the initiated, not everyone can arrive there. For those who are the initiates to do anything less is  without substance. It  doesn’t always happen. There are droughts and hazards and failures. But that’s the goal. When one gets to it, it brings an incredible joy to one’s heart. And the world if   indifferent can go its own way.  Is that romantic or just  true to oneself?

In front of us is a paradox. One either chooses a private life  or a public one. But this story of that decisive place where David Edward Byrd and I took different paths suggests an unforeseen  reversal. David by abandoning his private quest  entered the larger public arena of the entertainment  industry. But his posters served an auxiliary purpose. What remains of David’s  story is that of a respected industrious craftsman; whereas my story is waiting in the wings for the  stage manager to give his cue. 

 

Red Skies right side verticle me

Outlaw before the Procurator
 

I  guess I had forgotten the first time David addressed me as  “romantic”. I had put it out of my mind until over the phone  he repeated his demand. It was our friend Gus Brown who reminded  me. He was there at homecoming and remembered my flinching in discomfort at the word: “You don’t cover well,  Richard. You’re very bad at masking your feelings. You’re too honest. That’s not always good.”

 From the phone call with David I felt the shock of his word applied to my vision. I didn’t know anyone thought my ways needed addressing. I recoiled with this new understanding of how others  see me for I had grown accustomed to myself. If I  was no longer malcontent, why did others think it necessary to define my path.  For it is an insoluble dilemma, the  impenetrable assumption on  how a man should live. I was just  writing my story. So I felt like an outlaw before a Roman procurator, while David, in his usual manner of dour pedagogy importuned fervently that I stand  before the world and with head bowed submit to its scrutiny the scarlet letter burned on my bosom- the letter R.

 David had decided that he would dispense judgment; though I don’t know what truth this would secure, or why anyone our  age would have not already learned not to define other  people to their  faces. Implacable, David wanted me to admit  that I was defeated by not understanding the nature of the time. Whereas David admitted no difficulty in suppressing  any qualms in abandoning his  private desire to be a painter and advocating in its stead the sensible life.

 Long ago he rejected the obsessive, obsolete rite, refuting the idyll where the artist as hero acts against the hegemony of the collective will.  It seems that David perceived the paragon as  essentially a chimera, the magisterial as hubris.  He clearly saw in that path false heroics and misadventures. But all that one could say was the disparity and incompatibility of our aspirations  is beyond arbitration. We  have done with our lives what we have done.

In that same conversation with Gus Brown I was reminded that  David had visited New York and met Warhol and other high  stake players in the mid-sixties. He was not made welcome.  Far from  that! He came home to Pittsburgh to finish his degree with his tail between his legs. After that he had no wish for collisions with the fanaticism operating in the artworld. One cannot blame him.

It would have been hard enough to suffer one’s own demons as  one searched for voice and form to coalesce. The truth was that both David and myself had already had strong voices,  but in youth  one usually is not content, and the times were always asking for something more. So that would have been  arduous even with a supportive community. But the alienation  was daunting. It went  beyond the grief and loneliness before one found one’s wings anew. One would have to be demented to  face the harrowing run of the gauntlet and the violence of  the mob.

 That was especially so for those of us who had painted  figuratively and had some stake in the past. The scorn laid on us by those “in the know” was virulent beyond reason. The more you  were your own man, the more you were an easy target. A fledgling eagle stranded in the chicken yard was a game of delight for all those roosters. That most of them in the end were poseurs doesn’t matter.

 David, like myself, was overwhelmed by the swagger of hatred  exhibited in these confrontations. It was such a lavish display of contempt. We were not Caravaggio prepared to  fight duels with  these morons. We took flight.

 David left completely, whereas I shrunk into my private world. It has made me a misanthrope. I take flight whenever I hear people suggest: “Why don’t you send so and so…” I protest: “Please!  I’m not a donkey. Don’t hold carrots before me. Can’t you see I’m happy waiting for death on my own.”

                               

Dreaming Poppies 1996

An Angel Who Took Off His Wings
  

 Does one devote one’s song to majesty and miracles, or does one submit oneself to vassalage. If with the first gust of danger, the first shiver of cold and drought, we place ourselves in servitude.  Then why imagine freedom even for a  day- pointless dreaming. David and I both had been  privileged. We were the ones that shined. Like glass turned  in the wine our souls drank from  vintage glory; than David  left his submerged and forgotten.

 Let me try to make a picture of what happens when one paints. It’s always disappointing at first. One just decides to meander along. More curious than apprehensive, one  dallies, eyes wide open  looking for clues. It’s like stepping into a shallow river basin that causes no alarm,  until you start to make choices that leave you lost. You panic and scramble for a view. Then as you go racing for  a  way back, from out of nowhere the flashflood twirls you through a funnel in an intense hourglass of compression.  It’s over before you realize your enjoyment that releases you to an expansive  ease on the other side.

 How does that happen: when you need to get out of a congested state. Try a gambler’s toss of the dice. When you work for the man, you can’t risk that. You’re selling a  known product.

 David’s painting was very strong, but it fit a pre-selected pattern, surface deep. The image could jump out at you, but it didn’t recede into the picture plane to the territory of  time slowed to a  standstill, occupying a distant point in eternity. For all his ability to structure multi-figurative  works in schematic space they remained on the surface, locked in one time frame.

So maybe the story came out as it should. David went into illustration because he was an illustrator. He didn’t take  the elusive next step. He couldn’t let go and enter the danger zone- the  whirlpool that would push him through the  squeeze and out again as if reborn. Who would he be on the other side- hardly a way to placate his supporters. Who  could count on him! So David  insists that I am a romantic.  But I say I’m a painter. That’s what it takes. One must let go of supporters. Then, who would be one’s support? One  asks. They’d be a very special few.

So as I have been writing this, I’ve been dwelling on what  really is  that separates David from myself. I believe it is  either one does or doesn’t believe in one’s own voice. After  all, the lion  doesn’t ask permission to roar, or the songbird need applause. They are just saying: “I am here!  Come and find me or run from me. My song tells you what you  need to know.”

If one’s entire body of work becomes a self-portrait then a true self-portrait is that much more a direct song of the self. Take Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and David’s early hero,  Francis Bacon-  madmen for sure. What we have in their self-portraits is authentic singing. For whom do we know better than ourselves or say whatever we wish to say about ourselves and be free of interference.

 What is even more interesting is to see that face grow  through changes of confidence, pride, defensiveness, humility, and acceptance- a whole story of a lifetime. These faces that appear  before us reach us. It is their naked  transparency sharing a deep connection with the beholder  that is the beginning and ending of the romantic. It’s totally mad to think that the world would  bother to look,  but there are those who would if given the opportunity for  we look to others for signposts for ourselves.

 For David would not follow Francis Bacon into the desert, wouldn’t cross the river once the water rose to his neck,  once he couldn’t feel the bottom. Panic! I don’t blame him. How many  times did I panic, run back home with my tail down,  my head down, my hopes down the river- scuttled once again, time and time again.

I  wouldn’t wish that on anybody, not even myself. It’s no fun to be the one among your friends to be needy, always needy.  That’s the desert, the first one you enter, that is. But  there are other  deserts awaiting you: the paths that lead  you nowhere in your art, the dead canyons that you get lost in. There are more despairs than hardships in survival.

No one beats you as badly as you beat yourself. If you’re a painter then you don’t need a whipping boy. You have yourself to torment while you climb the walls in a shabby  room facing a  work that isn’t working. Yes, if you don’t like the desert, then it’s best not to enter it. It’s not an opera. There are no violins playing. The girl who came once  saw no fun in you. She isn’t coming back. You’re alone.

 

Oven's Womb Garfield Artwork

 The Shell of a Cicada

David’s choice did not surprise me, but there was something else, something missing evident in his person. An angel tired of flying, David had taken off his wings.

I  had always felt that there was a disturbing vacancy,  something broken inside. It went beyond the sciatic damage caused by a car accident after his freshman year at Tech. It was like he came  before everyone a dour and determined  supplicant at the Second Advent, an intrepid but wobbling minor prophet, the barest survivor of some grievous trauma that left him stranded inside:  the shell of a cicada. Its claws still firmly planted on the branch. And from that grim and intractable place David came before the world steadfast  but so cautious. He was playing close to  the ground, careful  not to fall.

We ride the merry-go-round, and as the carrousel passes we  reach for the prize. One wins or looses by the difference of  half an inch. Don’t talk to me about necessity. I’m speaking  about  what prize you are seeking and how you wish to honor yourself by that choice. Sush! I hear Sinatra singing: “I  did it my way.” It’s a sorry state when one doesn’t believe one has wings!

 

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