Budha From The Cross, 1989
Just as a fish can’t be seen when it stays down in the deep – Don’t show your power to anyone. - Tao
Lorenzo Pezzatini Florence 1989, 1995
I met Lorenzo and Caterina in the spring of 1989 at my fourth exhibition at Blue Mountain Gallery in New York. Judd Tully had stopped by with two cold beers the day after the opening for a friendly visit as I was living in Pittsburgh, and we didn’t see each other very often. I was delighted by his personal touch of bringing the beers and his bohemian elegance. Judd had blossomed since the time we had first met in 1972 into one of the most handsome men in the art world.
I mentioned my wish to get out of Pittsburgh. So he told me that just by chance that his close friend from Italy was in town, and that Lorenzo, who is an artist, sometimes rented his house in Florence to other artists on occasion. Judd sent him and his girlfriend, Caterina, over later that day to meet me.
Lorenzo bemusedly remarked on the ironic coincidence of my Italian looking deposition “Buddha from the Cross” presiding over our exchange of greetings. He looked much older than his age, like some ancient Roman with a withered but kind face. At first one didn’t think much one way or another of Caterina until she spoke; then from out of her mouth came honey, smooth and gentle and melodic. We all immediately felt comfortable with each other.
There were only a few portraits in the show, but they caught her attention and were brought into the conversation as we discussed my possibly renting Lorenzo’s house for August and September. She explained her regret that her father had died without their having a portrait of him and in judging my portraits in front of her, very politely made the request that I might consider the idea of her commissioning my painting a portrait of her mother when I was in Florence. I think that’s what sealed the deal right then and there.
Caterina also said that her uncle and his American wife rented farmhouses on the grounds of their castle in the countryside outside of Sienna and gave me their address. She was also sure that her aunt whose father had been a portrait painter would perhaps be interested in seeing my work.
Installation view, Blue Mountain Gallery, Baptism, 1989 (center)
As it turned out, Lorenzo’s large townhouse was just below the hills of Fiesoli. My renting it allowed them to get out of Florence during the steaming heat of August. That’s where I painted my “Florentine Baptism” which I later renamed “Narcissus” as I was the model for both figures: one unsparing while the other was wishful thinking.
When Caterina came over to arrange for the commission, and as she began to discuss the subject of payment, I stopped her polite leading up to the subject and offered instead to simply do the portrait for our new friendship’s sake. Up till then I never gave a thought about Caterina’s family until later that following week when she drove me to her mother’s place in the countryside to paint the portrait.
It turned out to be a castle, and her mother a comtessa. Lorenzo later explained to me that her grandfather was the last architect on the Pitti Palace for the House of Savoy, and it was he that gave the argument that it was high time to move the “David” inside. So being obviously of good family to begin with, he was ennobled by the last King of Italy. The milk and honey voice of Caterina would not have come from a milk maid!
I wound up doing two portraits of her mother. It was a mistake to have her pose without her glasses for the first as she lost her focus, and her nose looked much longer. I went back the following week, and at the dining table facing her gracious, animated face I caught sight of my intended vision of her. It was also very agreeable to be included as an honored guest at the charming gathering of an obviously close and happy family even though I didn’t have a Corsini Pope and Saint in the family as had the fiancÚ of Caterina’s brother, the present count who ran the family’s terra cotta tile factory.
When I moved to the isolation of a farmhouse far removed from the immediate grounds of her aunt’s principle buildings on the estate that October, I had been anticipating to enjoy the vast fields of sunflowers that I had seen when Lorenzo and Caterina had driven me there for a quick exploratory trip and personal introduction to her aunt and uncle. To my disappointment those vast fields had been just harvested, and only burnt sticks and blacked ash remained. In my minds eye I had planned to paint them, although I had no idea how to do it differently than Van Gogh. However, the other meandering fields of tobacco were still ripening with their lavender sprigs of flowers, and the days were crisp and sunny, and the awful humidity that I had lived through in August while in Florence had passed.
One midnight at full moon I stood meditating on the sky and the absolute silence of the surrounding fields when a creature I had never imagined except maybe as the goat in Goya’s “Witches Sabbath” crossed less than thirty feet from where I stood. It took no heed of my presence but continued it’s comfortable trot untroubled as it wandered right past me down the little road by the house and then into the darkness of the forest. I was told later it was rare to see these short legged miniature deer with unusually large racks of antlers.
Portrait, 1989, Sienna, Italy
I only stayed the month as the isolation was too much for me. Except for an American photographer who once drove up to the farmhouse the only people I could visit with was the family at the castle. Once I was invited for dinner, but otherwise, I was left to my own devices. I did, however execute two portrait paintings of the almost adult children: one of the youngest daughter, and the second with her older sister and brother. Of course the daughters were chaperoned when they posed for me. I think I cleared $400 as I was charged full season for my lodging. Caterina’s aunt knew quality when she saw it along with making a good deal for herself!
Studio view, 1994 (Vincennees, France)
Five years later I was in Vincennes, the last stop on the Paris Metro. I had taken for ten months a garden apartment with a glassed-in porch where I painted what I would refer to as my “German Girl” series. As I had lots of room I tried to get Lorenzo and Caterina, who were now married, to visit me. But Caterina was pregnant and subject to miscarriages. Instead, I went down to Florence on what became a ridiculously out of the way trip to Hamburg for a ridiculously short one day visit with the subject of those paintings.
Expulsion From the Garden, 1989-1992
As always I went to the Uffici, which as always amused Lorenzo. After all hadn’t I seen the paintings before? What was the need! I have found this attitude not unusual for contemporary European artists. I suppose it is some form of complex rejection owing to an overwhelming sense of awe when growing up surrounded by the work of giants. And that, instead of being inspiring, is such an intimidation that from the very beginning sends them running for cover, which is so different from my own childhood aspirations.
I can remember as a child of eight or nine discovering in the attic my father’s old book whose subject was the recovered art treasures of the German museums right after the war. There in black and white reproduction were the icons of my early years that excited my artistic ambitions of which the most beautiful to me were Rembrandt’s “Portrait of Hendrikje”, Carpaccio’s “Burial of Christ”, and Caravaggio’s staggeringly shameless pre-pubescent “Cupid in Armor” from the Gemaldegallery in Berlin along with Cranach’s “Eve” from Dresden’s Staatliche Kunstsammiungen.
When I visited Berlin for the first time fifty years later and saw these paintings, a great shock of memories came rushing back that had for decades been long forgotten owing to all the countless visual feeding of images that I had done since. Mostly what I remember now is how much I wanted to be able to make paintings like these.
In the attitude towards the heritage of the past by contemporary European artists, one has to understand that many of them were like Lorenzo; they had decided to become artists after growing up, and so they had missed a very early love affair with that heritage and the youthful journey exploring the wonder of how to make such images. I believe that if one doesn’t go through what is appropriate for one’s age, then that experience never can be regained naturally. If anything, it gets forced as an inappropriate and exaggerated goal in adulthood. That is when you see truly neo-conservative attitudes that deny for example modernism’s contribution to tradition. Otherwise, all that these contemporary artists can appreciate of the past is to lock it away in a parenthetical historic cabinet. So, of course, Lorenzo scoffed at me. But for me to stand before the three graces of the “Primavera” was just mesmerizing. How could one ever get enough!
Lorenzo on this visit showed me a photograph of a work that a year later became the subject that would lead to their disenchantment of me. It showed a large work with a painted image of a single DNA-like spiral, Lorenzo’s signature image, crossing over the pattern of overlapping sheets of glued paper. It had been on a billboard, taken down, and then hung inside in a dealer’s apartment. Lorenzo seemed to be undecided about its being hung inside. I, however, was immediately taken by its presence in changed circumstances and thought that the appropriated displacement magnified its power and physical identity in close quarters.
Furthermore, I saw this displacement as Lorenzo’s new signature framework – conceptually the very opposite pole from his works made as personal, to be worn, ornaments. I continued by saying that he should simply imitate the billboard in a studio for eventual gallery hanging.
Well, normally Lorenzo was the one who gave advice. He saw himself as the more worldly, owing to his previous close relationship with Ida Panicelli before she briefly took over as editor of “Artforum”. Anyway, in this instance he listened intently.
Two views of gallery Magda Baceras, Barcelona, 1995, with The Performer and She Dreams She Flies
A year later I returned to Florence prior to my hanging an exhibition of “The German Girl Nude” in Barcelona. It was during that visit that my friendship with Lorenzo and Caterina fell apart. For one thing their happy household did not run as deep as it once had. They had had a Down’s syndrome child. You could see their sorrow. And so I entered an unhappy home made worse during my visit because the child had a bad cold and was not as cuddly and cute as usual.
But what made the situation tense was my starting a new series of pages in art journals to advertise the exhibition with one in “Artforum”, and the other in “Flash Art”. You could see the strain on their tempers as I obliviously not only proceeded to step in dog shit but walk into their house and then wipe my shoes. Stupid! I broke the first rule of mutual harmony between artists who wish to remain friends: never make a show of such things. Hadn’t I learned from what happened a dozen years before; obviously not!
I proceeded to not only bring them copies, but worse, to go into a diatribe of how stupid it was that I had even bothered about the exhibition in Barcelona when the real logic of the situation should be understood as this: that the pages in the magazines was the real show. Worse, it took hard currency, and Caterina and Lorenzo were struggling to increase their design studio business.
Compared to them it must have seemed that I was free and easy. It’s like a slap in the face to people who have always imagined themselves superior to you. Though perhaps I am being unfair to them and that it was I who wasn’t sending them enough love. But, if so, I didn’t know how, and I regret it.
Then, all kinds of internal angers started rising to the surface in their behavior towards me. Like union peal, one after another of the fragile layers that hold a friendship together unraveled as Caterina and Lorenzo imagined insult and impropriety.
The last incident that happened was at the opening of an exhibition of Lorenzo’s small ornament pieces. Caterina’s aunt, her father’s sister, arrived, and as I passed them I extended my greetings to that distinguished gentlewoman. Caterina became angry with me for interrupting their conversation, forgetting that the aunt once drove me back to Florence the time I did the portrait of Caterina’s mother six years before.
A little while before that, the subject of Lorenzo’s billboard art had come up, and I stupidly explained my encouraging Lorenzo the year before. Well, that is what really set her off because, you see, that meant that I had considered myself Lorenzo’s equal. That was the rub. How dare I!
I was sad that the visit turned sour, but it would be a while before I was made to understand that it was the end of a friendship. That became clear in the ensuing months as Judd Tully also disappeared from communication. The non-returned calls were explained by the tone of his voice when finally I caught him by surprise answering my call. It’s curious how people accept the verdict of insulting behavior instead of seeing misunderstanding.
All of a sudden another Captain Hook was after my Peter Pan. And it’s all about their anger that I’m my own man, not theirs. Sorry everybody out there. The provocation was in your imagination. All my life people expected me to keep my place, but what place did they think it was. It was in their heads, that is. I was supposed to be beneath them.