Portraits & Passages

Chapter 36

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The soul is a porcupine, made strong by stick beating.
So a prophet’s soul is especially afflicted,
because it has to become so strong.
 Rumi

When people speak of being immortalized on canvas; what they want is an affirmation. Usually, they wish the artist capture something in that brief moment of poise that only in the quiet solitude before their mirror ever surrenders to view. Perhaps a surprised radiance surfaces while feeling loved when they are not paying attention to themselves. But coming before an artist is a formidable challenge. Certainly what they don’t want is something psychologically telling.

However, some brave hearts who find they are looking at a deeper encounter with themselves may find solace in seeing their souls unadorned by guises. They may in its reflection find something that verifies their own private accounting; grateful that someone accepts them as themselves; sees a beauty beyond the imperfect human. There can be nobility, even majesty, behind what at first disappoints.

He will paint women whose husbands refuse to hang their portraits because he has not made them glamorous. The wives, however, are not closed to what he sees and keep the portrait for their own private contemplation. One says to him: “You have made me as I see myself. You have captured my soul.” It’s a shallow image that shows a person as if one hasn’t lived.

We’re in a culture that esteems youth. But it is so brief; its beauty fragile and fleeting. When Botticelli paints Simonetta Vespucci, his model for the three graces in the “Primavera”, she is nineteen. She is the darling of the Florentine elite. She dies of consumption at twenty-three. If she had been granted a fuller life, what would she have looked like at forty, at fifty?

 

Larry Blauvelt spread Artforum Nov 2000 70

The Bride Who Cut Off Her Nose

I have known those who have traded their lives for less. Being reasonable, they have assigned themselves a modest place. They won’t be hurt by dreams not coming true. They are realists; they have no illusions: they are neither beautiful nor exceptional. If Fate gives them a nudge, they excuse themselves. It’s foolish to risk failing.

Our friend Judy focuses on practical assurances. The odds are against one’s aspirations. Be reasonable.

I suppose Judy has looked at my journey as confirmation to that point of view, but our friend Luke has a more gracious grasp on life. When I tell him that I won’t be a star, he offers: “Richard, you are a star in my eyes.”

Still, I doubt if any of my friends understand when I paint them they are going public. Everybody speaks in clichés as being immortalized in a painting, but do they truly comprehend they are also in my story?  I think Larry did. That seems to offend Judy when I send her a copy of Artforum with his two portraits across a spread of pages.

She never replies, never again sends me, as is her custom, Christmas cards of herself as she sits dressed in taffeta, surrounded by her kitties and her stuffed teddy bears filling up the available space of the colored photographs which Larry will help take of her when he is alive. Besides her friends, she sends it out to the many people that she knows in the theatre.

Judy, as Alan Jay Lerner’s girl Friday and confident to some of the greatest legends of Broadway musical theatre, is already a fixture in that world when my brother’s friends from Carnegie Tech Drama move to New York to start their careers. She has known my sister-in-law Regina Ress before everybody, and it is Judy’s wide connections that lead Bob from pursuing a career in the theatre and into television as designer for the Mike Douglas Show then produced in Philadelphia.

Bob will remain with the Douglas show for over a decade before moving to LA to become art director for the Miss Universe Pageant. So on my return from France, I assume a place among these friends in the theatre whose walls of my paintings form the revolving backdrop to their lives.

Judy’s tiny apartment on Cornelia Street is too small, and her salary too modest to collect paintings. She knows everybody and can find possible entrée for others, but Judy will not leave the theatre. She remains safely in the background; it affords her the freedom to stay herself in its whacky Bohemia- an intrepid, no nonsense personality in jeans and baseball cap administrating to the dysfunctional Lerner. She loves running the show outside the limelight. It would never occur to her to write a book.

Could one speak of the time that Leonard Bernstein, in a fit of exasperation with Lerner, throws a lamp through the window of Lerner’s office to the sidewalk on Madison Avenue below. Can you imagine the consequences to his majestic standing if someone would have been killed! Or the time Katherine Hepburn, in a pique over Judy’s refusal to leave Lerner and join her staff in LA, careens with her in a blind rage knocking Judy off the stage and into the orchestra pit! No one else would have been reconciled to the note of apology sent to her hospital room with a bouquet of roses.    

Early on Judy had been jilted. She speaks with candor, puzzled how it is that men will be so passionate one moment and then abruptly turn cold and indifferent. She has built walls to protect herself. Her appraisal concludes that she is hardly a beauty. By the time I return from Paris, she has made her most serious corrections. They are startling to me for I remember her from before.

Back in Pittsburgh, long before I go to France, I paint Judy when she visits the Ress household. Her large, ethnic nose fits well with her broad, full face, making a striking persona of earthy, sexual attraction. Not the ideal of middle-America, so she erases its rich authentic beauty by having the hated nose clipped off to that of a pug.

I had called her first portrait The Jewish Bride. One of Regina’s cousins buys the painting. Years later in Luke’s kitchen I will paint another. But it is unconvincing. Like its model, something essential is absent.

I can only assume from Judy’s silence that she sees my placing Larry’s portraits in Artforum from the perspective of her own self-denial; that I have used some reserved precinct of Larry’s private life. I had sent it for remembrance, and I believe Larry understood. To me, the two portraits on those pages allow him a place amongst the living. The paintings he poses for become his gift.

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Larry Blauvelt left panel

The Actor Hiding from His Muse
The Portrait of Larry Blauvelt – A Saintly Comedy

Larry Blauvelt had the gaunt, tragic face of a desert prophet grim with suffering. He was a great comic talent sabotaged by his own neurosis into abandoning an acting  career out of fear. His anxieties kept him in flux. He was always in retreat. After becoming a pastry chief he then became allergic to flour. So went his life. He never  brought forth from his depths a consummate expression. No wonder he became ill with cancer. He had made his life a fast from all that he had wished.

Our close friend Luke, whose portrait in grattage was one of the first I made on coming to New York, could not help but laugh through his tears as he would  expand upon Larry’s hysterical antics and reversals. We could only shake our heads in wonder as Larry chased after this illusion or that, and then abandon them.

The bottom line was that Larry could have taken a very deep soul into the service of serious comedy. But instead his life became a very sad comedy. I think it ate him  up. One may fail out in the world, but that need not mean one fails oneself. I had always seen Larry as “The Actor” in Picasso’s painting at the Met.

Having moved back to Pittsburgh, I had not seen Larry for a long time when in the spring of 1990 I was passing through New York and had John and Karen  Bennett’s carriage house on Downing Street all to myself for a few days. So I met Larry who walked over to John’s studio from Mercer Street close by.

I knew from Luke that Larry was suffering and after having been going through treatments for a long while abruptly stopped. He had had enough and was resigned  to his fate. But I was not prepared for what I would see in him, and I was startled. There was an aura of calm surrounding him and in his eyes benevolence. It was quickly followed by a twinkle of amusement at my surprise.

He knew his time was about to be over, and he accepted it. I imagine that his death less than a year later was not so easy, but at this moment he had achieved a plateau  where he could with grace comfort friends with his peace.

Perhaps he had reached sainthood after all his suffering. His transformation inspired me, and I asked cautiously: “Larry, may I paint you?” I didn’t explain myself; he  knew already what I was seeing in him. He simply said yes. We arranged it for the next day.

In John’s studio with the light filtering down from the skylight I painted two portraits in succession. Perhaps that was a bit of a strain on Larry, and the fatigue showed,  and maybe I didn’t capture all the calm that was in his eyes. But the one emerging as if from a veil Larry kept on a wall in his bedroom until he died; the other my  mother asked to keep on the wall in her apartment that she sat across. She too was touched by the kindness on his face and the resignation. It stayed up for some eight years keeping her company until she died.

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What Larry had allowed of me was to let me close. It was the necessary arrangement between the painter and his model. The absence of a composed  openness is the major barrier to portraiture. The sitter (although I usually have my subjects stand very close to me) needs to feel safe under the gaze of the painter,  which means that I have to let down my guard and become equally vulnerable to their surveillance. Most often they are not looking directly at me, but I am, none-the-less, caught inside their peripheral screen of intimacy.

In that way they become complicit in the active engagement of beholder and beheld. The success of the portrait depends on my capturing that shared openness, though  complete comfort need not be the only form it takes. Not every image determined by that involvement is a product of sympathy. It is possible for a very dynamic  portrait of discreet caution between subject and painter provided that an unspoken truce allows for the agreement of a limited intimacy.

However, there have been times when a subject has posed unwillingly. At such times I have felt the psychic force field blocking my vision. These incidents become  washouts. I can spot them in advance. That is why I only now paint whom I choose. I must feel the possibility of a reciprocating trust for the event before us to succeed.

 

Larry Blauvelt veil tight

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