Portraits & Passages
Oratory Mural Installation, 1987
To be suspicious and greedy when majesty arrives is the worst arrogance. - Rumi
Bucks County - 1988
It always amazes me how small the world is and how strange that that gets illustrated from left field. In this instance my story centers around a private valley in Bucks County shared by only two families.
Michael Armentrout, the son-in-law at the time of one of the families, had been a friend of mine prior to my departure for Paris in 1968. He was four years younger than me and a student in the art department at Carnegie Tech when we finally made acquaintance of the other. I couldn’t for the longest time figure out who he was. My first impression of this rather tale fellow with a reddish goatee and riding around on a three wheel cycle with the square storage box in the back was that there goes a dilettante. I haven’t changed my mind, but I use the ancient meaning of the word.
I then found out that the reason I couldn’t get a handle on who he was had to do with his coming and going as if by his own volition to spend his junior year in Paris at William Stanley Hayter’s atelier study engraving.
Eventually we met, and if I remember correctly, he and another student took over my apartment on my leaving for France.
Michael sort of paraded his coming from privilege. He stood out in his Waspish, worldly manner, but though annoying, I can’t say that he was really offensive. You could see that he was amused by such fellow students as Aladar Marburger and Barbara Schwartz. His critical eye was savvy about those two chasing after Elaine de Kooning. After all, Michael wasn’t bad at buttering up those from whom he sought favor.
And he could laugh at himself with a sort of detachment. We could have a little repartee in fun and leave the others to digging up grudges. In short, we liked each other well enough, and as he would return to France, we made plans to stay in touch once we both were in Paris.
The next time that I remember seeing him was on a red Harley with a sidecar in Paris. I believe he took me to diner at le Coupoule. Michael lived very well! I, on the other hand, used every frank I had on paint and canvas and photos of the paintings I made with hardly enough left but to eat oatmeal three times a day. We did not hang out together.
Then he went back to Philadelphia and married Janet Domain whose parents owned half of that valley in Bucks County. I too, when I returned to the states found myself in Philadelphia. My brother, Bob, who was the art director for the “Mike Douglas Show” got another assignment in Toronto and let me stay in his apartment on Spruce Street. So once again Michael and I made limited contact.
Then, after my move to New York we barely stayed in touch for most of the next decade. At some point, however, Michael started to write to me about the time I took pages out in “Art in America”. But the catalyst that brought me to German Town and the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential was his retrospective of engraving at a local art museum.
It was on that first visit to his stomping grounds that we agreed to my loan of “The Oratory Mural” to the Institutes where Janet was the director, having succeeded her father who founded the place. Janet loved to spend her free time riding her horse on her parents’ estate while Michael followed his own pursuits, which for most of the previous decade had been at the Florida headquarters of the Church of Scientology.
However, he kept current about property interests and told me he was concerned about the new owners on the other estate. They seemed to be offering top dollar to entice the usually lazy locals to help in the renovation of the house and barn. Michael was worried that because so much money was being put into the place, if these new owners should decide to move, the estate would be so expensive that only a developer would buy it for subdivision, and the valley would be ruined.
Then, he paused and asked if I might have an idea who these people were. He said the husband bragged about owning Conde Nast. And that caught my attention. “Oh my God!’ I think I said silently to myself.
Oratory Mural Installation, 1987
It was later on one of those infrequent telephone calls that I mentioned to Pam this bizarre coincidence along with the news of my hanging the mural not overly far from where she was living. Neither she nor Steve ever bothered to see it, but that was something I was starting to expect in advance – that reluctance, and I just had to shrug it off.. If she would have bothered, I would have been so pleased, and of course it hurt that she didn’t care.
Oratory Mural, detail Mary
It would be a few more years before I would fully understand the active nature of this disregard while she maintained the pretense of affection. Passive aggression always conspires with its victim’s hope that time will make things better.
But at this time I was delighted that both parties agreed to meet for diner at Pam’s on my next visit there. For both sets of friends had felt a pronounced suspicion about the other. Pam especially after I mentioned that Michael’s mother was a Roosevelt. “You know, they’re old money.” At which she retorted with a grimace: “How much older is that – a hundred years!”
None-the-less, everybody was cordial over diner even if, as Michael said afterwards, it was rather tasteless lentils. Later everybody walked down the path to the other house.
That turned out to be the first and last diner shared by both couples. Neither really wished to relinquish their own sense of position.
I would visit a few times more. Once on the request of Joey, my godson, who at age seven wanted a portrait of himself with his mother since Jake had one that I painted of him as a baby with Pam. Both were modest works – just small enough to fit upstairs in their tiny bedroom.
The last time I visited Pam I asked how Joey liked his painting. She couldn’t answer. She said it dismissively. She couldn’t be sure if it were still hanging, nor, by the way she answered, did she care.
I have to say here that over the years I have given paintings to friends with children, and as parents they are delighted in telling me how much their youngsters get from my work – what they inform their parents on what they see. Usually the children are very enthusiastic, and everybody has reason for joy.
When I know that my paintings are hung in their homes I feel a strong connection to their home and to them. I think there is magic to be shared if people are willing to keep their hearts open. And if some choose to keep theirs shut, I can only feel sadness.
Self Portrait, 1986
The episode that ended any pretense between Pam and I came towards the late ‘90s when I mentioned to her of my meeting Knight Landesman for the first time in Berlin when we went together to the opening of the new National Gallery of Contemporary Art in the former Hamburger Banhof. We were in rollicking good moods having gotten in by pressing up with the last members of a prepaid party.
As I raced through the crowds on the other side Knight said: “Richard, slow down. There are women here!” And I slowed down with: “Oh… Yes!”
We immediately felt comfortable with the other, and at some point I mentioned that once I was friends with Si Newhouse’s daughter. Knight said: “Which one?” – “There is only one.” He was testing me.
Why I let this out is a mystery except that I always told Pam everything. The pained distress humming from the phone pushed me. I should have explained my unspoken thought to Knight as “You see, I am a veteran. I’ve seen all this before; nothing surprises me.” But another came out: “This way he knew that I wasn’t afraid of him . That I had offended much more powerful people than he.” “Oh, I see…” But that really wasn’t the truth. I had never tried to offend her father. It was Pam who found me offensive, and it became mutual. That’s all.
Self Portrait (detail) 1986
Once Pam told me she came over to a party at the house, and Andy Warhol ran over to her to sit beside her. He asked if she liked the new portrait that he did of her grandfather. She said: “Well, it’s a nice photograph of my grandfather!”
What after all do I have left but a handful of anecdotes. It’s time to let it all go. They might as well be a handful of ashes thrown to the wind.