Beginnings & Endings
The Reluctant Writer
When I first began to assemble images for my website I had not foreseen that it would evolve into the story now taking shape. I had for most of my life been reluctant to explain my painting. Early on, like most young people, I had made decisions and held on to them way past the point that to everyone else I should reconsider. My mother had for years been saying: “You must write!” Maybe someone should have said: “Listen to your mother.”
For as much as my mother was a central figure present in my painting, after all she was my first model, she did not intrude. She knew she dared not, and in any case that was not her way. She was a very discreet person.
Though not until her last years did it dawn on me how from the very earliest times she was fascinated with my pursuit and how much she believed in me. But she remained quietly in the background.
If she told me I should write, it was always in response to telling her one of my stories- all told said to me perhaps four or five times during the last twenty years of her life, hardly an invasion, and from my part, taken as advice well received but for application down the road, at the right time, whenever that would be.
Often I put things on the back burner and let them percolate. But I’m a creature of habit that I forget it’s a new day. To be sure, I was slow to the point of stupidity in putting captions to the paintings I had placed on the ad pages of “Artforum”, etc. And in the instance that I did, it had been waiting thirty-five years. It took 9/11 for me to bring out “Ship pf Fools” with its caption of a personal Viet Nam era history that suggested a contemporary parallel.
Yet I did not follow my next ads with stories- what a misadventure! I had set my own example and then was unresponsive to its lesson. Only in my very last two ads in “Artforum”: “Slipping through the Net” and “Take Your Umbrella” did I finally wake up to the call of storytelling. By then I could no longer afford to continue, and it all went into the holding bins until now.
Then, after visiting an old friend in France something got unhinged in my mind, and the gates holding everything at bay let go. It took plodding through my slide collection to wake up to the obvious. It was not that I had not acknowledged it in my mind from the beginning, It was that I was waiting for some occasion to structure it fully. It was now in front of me. I had been painting an autobiography, and its story was perhaps rewarding as an example- a tale of an artist finding his voice that went against the dictates of the period.
That had been one of the major points of inquiry of Robert Lepper’s class “The Retrospective” at Carnegie Tech. In and out of his classroom we would enter into dialogues that reviewed how one can do an authentic body of work as autobiography; that it may invariably carry socio-political content by virtue that we are social animals; and that an artist from Pittsburgh in the 20th Century might produce as important a body of work as an artist from 15th Century Florence.
Lepper was using his former student Andy as an example. And Warhol along with his then sidekick Philip Pearlstein grasped the significance of that overview that included how the tools of a given society, the technical processes available, determine that culture’s artistic expression.
When I took Lepper’s class “Individual and Social Analysis” in 1964, Warhol had already taken the means of production of mass media and made it his own. One could only follow in his shadow. Another way would have to be chosen. I suppose that is why Mel Bochner, a favorite student of Lepper’s, chose to give up making material images almost entirely.
To me that was a mark of self-annihilation: to reduce art to the point where it ceased to exist. To diagram the most arbitrary decisions of a hypothetical action is hardly an engaging artistic expression.
Perhaps Mel believed his own shadow play, but I think it was a roose. He got caught up in his own game and couldn’t extract himself from his success. Ultimately, he was dwarfed by it and closed off from other possibilities- stranded like a fish caught in the shallows when the tide runs out. For only the most gigantic figures can break the mold they have cast for themselves. Or maybe I should say that Mel got fooled into presiding over an obsolete program. It was obsolete the moment it achieved attention.
That obsolescence was a prescribed model for those recruited in the search for the new. Like the biggest and bravest of Napoleon’s, Mel and his cronies marched obediently to the front lines only to be mowed down. They got buried with their medals.
To be fair, Mel also had a philosophical bent that gave his speculative theorizing an air of authenticity. Yet for all his charm I couldn’t help notice my little internal warnings to guard myself: there were calculation and meanness in his view of others. I saw a side to Mel that relished beating people- pull something over on people who were not out to get him.
It happened during a time when Mel and I were often in conversation. I was being tormented by my teacher Douglas Pickering for not painting in class. I had been his pride and joy during the previous semester, but after getting all that I could, needed time on my own.
Mel had a similar but different story. He told me of his absence from Sam Rosenberg’s classroom his senior year. He too painted on his own- a handful of large powerful abstractions “like no one else ever did there” and brought them to class at the end of the semester. Mel was gloating with satisfaction as he told me how he had challenged the grandfatherly Rosenberg to flunk him and instead was given an A. But old Rosenberg was kind. There was no one to beat!
As much as I wanted success, I wanted it on my own terms. Mel must have wanted it with more certainty as David Byrd reminded some of us just recently. Mel was fully aware that a price would be extracted for success. He would make the rounds questioning each of us individually whether we would enter into a hypothetical exchange for it in a Faustian pact with the Devil using the example of Fanz Kline’s early demise at fifty-two: “ Would you be willing to accept an early death if you could be certain of fame. Did you think it worth it?”
I have long since wondered how Mel feels about his bargain. Did he understand that it was only for fifteen minutes. Didn’t he grasp Picasso’s example that one uses the first fifteen minutes as a point of departure- as something to walk away from and not be trapped by.
Maybe, as I suspected, Mel just didn’t have anything else to offer. Forty years ago in the print shop of Carnegie Tech I had looked at his images in the acid bath and wondered what he had to say. He would race off to Lepper’s studio as if someone could give him the answers.
I was not susceptible to the theoretical dictates of the period that rapidly merged into a fashion business. Later, as Pamela Newhouse would say to me, it became “the flavor of the day, the insatiable thirst for the new that feeds the machine.” She could afford to shrug off the futility of the culture while her family’s magazines pushed the occasion for all its worth.
My course became increasingly an anomaly as new waves of installation and performance art crashed onto the scene. To paint at all was seen as backwards. But I’m an obstinate person. I chose to do what I love. The rest is the story of going against the fashion of the day.
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