Biafram Madonna, 1968
Your master is he who controls that on which you have set your heart or wish to avoid. – Epictetus
“Father, Vulture, Holy Butterfly”- Darthea Speyer -
Darthea Speyer's mother was an artist, and even in her late eighties you could see she was no fool. By chance she was visiting from Pittsburgh and in the gallery when I unrolled what was the major work I had done so far in Paris "Father, Vulture, Holy Butterfly" on Darthea’s floor. She looked at it intently and said: "Darthea, you should show this. It would look wonderful in your gallery." Darthea's voice was almost a scream: "Mother, Please!" Hardly a form of respect for someone who led her, her brother James, and her sister Nora, the painter into the world of art to begin with. Tilly Speyer knew what she was seeing!
That was in early February 1969. Later that year I was invited to a group show “Jeunes artistes americains” at le Centre Culturel Americain on rue du Dragon. Once again I tried to exhibit "Father, Vulture, Holy Butterfly". My smaller paintings were hung but this major iconic canvas was excluded because I had wished it to be pinned on the wall. That physically was no problem, but Mme Baltrisuitus, the show's organizer, would not just choose a wall and let me install it. She insisted I would cause problems and be disruptive. I assured her I would be grateful for any location for the painting. She was adamant; it never got hung.
None-the-less, it did get reproduced in a black and white photo with me standing by it in the cultural center's magazine "Information & Documents". Even in a small photo the painting is powerfully present. Perhaps that's where Mme. Baltrustuitus got her dander up. She had wanted everyone to do an original one-color work for the journal. That was fine for everybody else because his or her work suited. But I wasn't an engraver of one color works or a painter of simple shapes. My painting could not be represented in so simplistic a manner. Perhaps it would have been different had my work been known, then to do something minor but clever could have been chic.
But my work wasn't chic nor ever aimed to be. It was about life and death. We were in the Vietnam War, and the cover of the "New York Times Magazine" had a black and white photo of an emaciated mother with sunken breasts holding her starving baby. That was from the civil war in Biafra. The image haunted me. When I came to France African sculpture was in galleries. It mixed in my mind with the iconic pietas I was doing back in Pittsburgh which in turn were reinforced with Romanesque altarpieces in the Louvre that segued into Oceania and then out again with Picasso's "Weeping Woman" inhaling her handkerchief.
New York was minimal or conceptual; it left me blank. Paris on the other hand was bursting with imagery, the more primitive; the more enthralling. It all entered my mind in a swirling storm. So in the studio everything got brought to the canvas, which being applied with layers of color, absorbed the buildup of overlapping motifs from the eclectic abundance of cultures. Then as the paint dried slowly, the intent of the image congealed with the paint as the process entered its phase of selective erasure. Positive and negative means overlapped until an identity emerged that I recognized and accepted.
I had entered the most creative period I had known leading to "Father, Vulture, Holy Butterfly." A line drawing could not express that adventure, although, sure, I had preparatory sketches that would have pleased, but not me, not what I wanted to be seen. For that I was punished. Someone like Ileana Sonnabend might have understood and let me play my own hand. Every time I played my own hand someone called me difficult.