Beginnings & Endings

Chapter 3




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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