Portraits & Passages

Chapter 4

Potiphar's Wife 1970, 07%

 

 Potiphar’s Wife

Barbara Schwartz steps into a world well beyond her. In that she is not unlike most of the dreamers who gravitate to the allure of the art world. Ultimately, she is a minor comet pulled in orbit by the prevailing force of greater densities. All the luminaries she passes brush her with their auras; her own becomes dimmer as time and their deaths leave her stranded.

Had it not been for her bringing a copy of Thomas Mann’s Joseph and his Brethren to Paris leading to her modeling for Potiphar’s Wife in Joseph Accused; all her superficial radiance would evaporate into the vacant grey of indifference.

Nostalgia hardly brings her to life. If souls meet in another place, I do not wish to see hers; she is only a player in my story, not a friend. Still a person leaves before her allotted time.

If she is to be remembered, Barbara Schwartz becomes the image I make her, fusing seamlessly the real and the fictive on the throne of spitefulness. She had cast me into the Pit where I suffer suppression from her circle then in power. But already, I had immortalized her in her greatest and truest role.

 

 

 

Portrait of Jake and Esther Schwartz, 1971 (and detail)

Do not throw yourself away on the world. It comes to him of its own accord. He needs only to be able to wait.  – Baltasar Gracian

Barbara Schwartz –
 “Joseph Accused by Potipher’s Wife”

When I returned to the states in the spring of 1971 the first painting I did was a double portrait of Jake and Esther Schwartz for their daughter Barbara, who at le  Cite des Arts  in Paris was my guest and the model of Potipher’s wife in "Joseph Accused." She also was Elaine de Koonings protégée, and in time, surrogate  daughter. Through her longtime friend Aladar Marburger, the director of Fischbach Gallery, Barbara met and married Bill Jensen. Her charismatic father was bigger  than life, and her mother was acutely manic-depressive. She had requested that I do their portrait before she left Paris in November 1970, and of course I did it for free on my return to the States that following spring.

The drawing technique for that portrait and the “Joseph in Egypt” triptych came from scratchboard realized on a layered paint surface on canvas that once dry and  hardened is scratched through the top dark color of cadmium red to mid-value turquoise and then to a base of yellow-white. Throughout the seventies my portraits in grattage were made following the above color arrangement.
 

                             

Detail, Jake Schwartz, "Flashart", March 1983 issue

And from then on during that decade my work was going in two directions  - one towards abstraction and the other portraits like “Jake and Esther” whose precision  mimicked photo-graveur. When I had them reproduced on ad pages a decade later I realized afterwards that they would be read as photo-generated. But they were  drawn with single edge razor blades free hand from life. I was just that good. None-the-less, as I was scratching in Jake’s face he taunted me with: “You call yourself an artist.”

Barbara was very annoyed that I had brought it up to New York from Philadelphia. It had been very hard for me to part with it. I felt it one of my greatest works, but  I had promised it to her, and I never imagined she would hide it from view at her parent's house. She once said to me a dealer was interested in my work, but told him I was difficult.

                              

                        

Escape Through Desert, 1969

On her return to New York from Paris she had told Elaine about my painting technique. Elaine insisted that Bill (de Kooning) scraped away paint long before me . Barbara offered: "But Elaine, Richard scrapes paint away when it's dry as well." Elaine just walked out of the room.

                        

 

                                

Exhibition Poster, 1970, Untitled (and detail)

In Paris Darthea Speyer had told me: "You are treading on de Kooning's territory." She could not see that we both departed from Picasso, and that I then departed  from de Kooning by incising and cutting away windows of concave and convex shapes through the shallow depth of an agitated surface of paint. Also, I saw room  between where Picasso left off and de Kooning began, and so I backtracked to develop what they had neglected.

I was much more in tune with Picasso than the generation before me that had needed to reject him. I didn’t need to prove that, Instead, I used his iconographic  example while deeply immersing myself in the elaborate painting process that layered paint in successive stages, and then with the points and flats of razor blades  subtracted that paint as it progressively dried while simultaneously forming the image. It was a reductive, almost sculptural procedure that produced a complex  shallow depth of field. The imagery had coalesced in the merging of process and form

 

   

Portrait of the Artisit's Mother, first version, 1963
Etching of the Artist's Mother,
1966

The progression towards iconography and beyond found its way initially in the adaptation of scratchboard and etching to paint technique. This whole exploration  started with a 1963 portrait of my mother painted traditionally in distinctive brushwork that set the textural pattern for a linear transcription of it on to a large  deeply bit etching plate – one of three done in the print shop at Tech in the fall of 1966.

And in this matter I was very consciously following Picasso’s pattern of using a motif from a realistic staging point outward into a serial development that  approached abstraction. This then allowed a momentum to be maintained and a sense of authenticity towards the invention of new images built on the foundation of an earlier one.
 

                   

Green Mother, 1967

                               

Portrait of the Artist's Mother - Revised version, 1967

I had painted my mother under a severe light. She wore no makeup. It is brutally direct, having been done at very close range for a grueling three hour session. Add  to that, my mother had been under extreme stress. The lost weight was evident in her face. So it is a very tense and intense portrait that no stranger would ever have been allowed to make.

For my mother’s portrait I used linen canvas for the first time. Unlike cotton, linen’s subtle irregularity of weave makes the brushwork stand out and so demands much  more play in its execution. There is just so much more happening, and it’s a real pleasure.

 

Detail of Portrait of Artist's Brother, 1967

The tactile sensation of the brush moving across the canvas threads can be transmitted to the viewer. The weave establishes the picture plane from which the  image recedes or emerges. Its pattern keeps tempo conceptually like the bars in a musical score maintaining measure. It therefore is a reality no matter the illusion projected on to it, and its presence stands its ground.

                            

Detail of Portrait of Nina Faso, 1967

The challenge for the brush is to play off this measured grid with a convincing organic flowing sweep of paint discharging from the brush. In one movement it  unloads a buildup which flows from it to a dissolve as the artist articulates a form in space. The canvas is prepared beforehand with a ground color of medium dark  sienna left to dry which becomes the foil against which the lighter colors for the face’s flesh and bone are borne. So it all has to do with how one feels the  sympathetic pressure of paint coming off the moving brush, which is in correspondence to the visual presence of the physicality of the face’s structure.

    

Details of Portrait of Artist's mother, 1967 and Self-Portrait, 1966

It is as if we reach out to the form of the face before us on the canvas – like touching the face of a beloved. The pressure of the brushstroke is like a caress –  it’s a very sympathetic awareness tuning to the face and the painting simultaneously – to make the two, one. When each element of the material process keeps its  identity, it empowers the primal assertion calling into being the image. It becomes mythic, not illustrative. That is what mastery is all about.

For both the image and the vehicle are reciprocating extensions of the other. There is an organic fusion possible that need not distract from the perception of the  material presence nor the conceptual blueprint received in the viewer’s mind. That is why I found the breakdown into conceptual, minimal, and process art a  diminishing of the full integrated experience. If anything, what is most rewarding is a unified image, which includes its emotional attributes held together by a perceptible conceptual ideal.

                       

Detail of Green Mother, 1967

 

Exhibition Poster from University of Chicago, 1967

My brushwork was a studied performance of Frans Hals, Valesquez, John Singer Sargent, Degas, and of course Rembrandt. I valued their precision without rigidity.  The brushwork on my mother’s face approached some of their command in following the logical flow of facial tension. That intensity travels from the etching onwards to a progression of icons such as “Biafran Madonna” whose theme  warranted that look of pain and resolve that had been on my mother’s face.

As I progressed from one mode of making an image to another, there was a very conscious attempt to keep a correspondence of truth in the translation. So that  what was to eventually emerge while I was in Paris was an evolution in which every stage was part of a lineage of my own particular history and at the same time a  recapitulation of the history of art done not in copying but in my own unique fashion. Sometimes I came closer to a particular artist, and sometimes in my experiments I  came across a more unique way. But ultimately the issue was to take painting’s potentiality to a new sensibility while maintaining a connection to those who came before me.

                 

Clown, 1967

By the fall of 1968 when I arrived in Paris, I had already had two years of deliberate searching for a means that could bring the gouged mark to use in the act  of painting. By aiming for a more tactile presence as inspired by primitive iconography I took command of my resourses that evolved into a violent act of re -creative erasure. Often the blade work was subtle and careful, but other times I slashed away ruthlessly at my borrowings to clear the image of cliché.

 

The Work of Mourning (detail), 1968

But it was also a purposeful act to counter the coldness of conceptualism and minimalism. For I did not wish to break from the past; I sought to give it a new  voice. Sonnabend Gallery was around the corner from Darthea’s. What I saw there left me indifferent, but Darthea’s showing Leon Golub’s iconic figures from  Greek sculpture made an impression. It was one of the few exhibitions of contemporary art that did. That Darthea would not show my paintings didn’t really  make sense. In retrospect I really did fit her agenda; she just couldn’t see it.

Yes, in paintings such as “Icarus” there is a bit of parody as I stylized de Kooning’s brushwork, but there is also a structural framework far more logical and lyrically  geometric than what is usually seen in Cobra painters who also use heavy applications of paint. That’s because of my fascination with the awkward presence  and heavy delineation of outlines of figurative forms in late Gothic and early Renaissance painting especially that of Giotto, whose frescoes in the Scrovegni  Chapel formed the basis of my composition for “The Oratory Mural” two years before in Pittsburgh.

                                              

                           

Detail of Christ, Oratory Mural, 1966

I was interested by the way Giotto and Duccio used a free form of isometric perspective in realizing architectural shapes. I found their idiosyncratic  resisting of  complete systems fascinating, especially when the forms followed ambiguous spacial projections that contradictorily become flat at one end and sculptural at the other.

I also kept going back to the stage prompter’s box in Picasso’s Rose Period “The Actor” at the Met. The circus and theatre offered Picasso similar structural props  as enjoyed by Giotto, and though I got further and further away from realistic representation, my abstracted re-creations honored their compositions.

The prompter’s box is almost casually sketched in. It is right on the edge of standardized perspective which gives his notation a mysterious attraction – being at  that displaced moment of logic and illogic, a compelling force of intrigue pulls at our attention as our mind’s eye savors the texture of resistance to instant verification, a  feat of pre-conceptual, de-constructive play. Or perhaps in recollection I imagined it more than it is, for when one speaks of influence, one isn’t suggesting that there is  direct borrowing, although that too can happen on occasion. But usually that place of inspiration is a jumpstart to an image that one can call one’s own. My aim was to discover something singularly mine.

Often that came by way of dreams that took that recollection to a nascent image that expanded its suggestion to something more acute. Then, if one didn’t return to  the original inspiration, the dreamed image took on a life of its own till the dream became a dream of itself – an echo of an echo. If we are able to embrace our re -creation, isn’t it after all in the manner of all evolution. We start at one experience, but in allowing a recollection to gestate, we progress to another.

 

                 

Untitled, 1970

My figurative imagery had started as portraits, became iconic, and was becoming increasingly abstracted. I was taking de Kooning's approach back to what was  only half hidden: his debt to pre-Renaissance painting, which was the same place Picasso was coming from. Darthea had only seen my surface as cobra influenced. She did not imagine an approach that combined and reformed on a two  dimensional canvas aspects of Oceanic Shields, Romanesque hinged altar pieces, Picasso's bent flat-metal sculptures, Calder's stabiles and Lee Bontecou’s canvas covered portals.

                 

Untitled, 1970

I had seen a common thread that touch all of them, but because all these aspects were integrated into a whole and my structural quotations transformed, Darthea  was only willing to see the surface and pronounce de Kooning. Darthea, like so many other dealers, would only accept what was already determined. But the  echoes of all those forms sailing on my dreams she shut out like a vengeance.

                     

Scorpio, 1968

For what really interested Darthea, or at least as seen from this distance of almost four decades, is characteristic in what I observed of almost all the dealers I had  encountered: she was into a game of domination. The only artists who had a chance in keeping hold of their personal integrity in the face of that were those whose  magnetism was so enormous and the belief in themselves so utterly convincing, that they became a force to be reckoned with. But I think they were very few. Most artists suffered at the hands of dealers.

                               

                  

Death has No Master (detail), 1970

Once she said to me: “Artists are such children.” She presumed it her right to prod and poke as if she were a grand duchess. Except a true grand duchess might have  conducted herself with more grace and gentleness. There was little of that to be seen through Darthea’s usual condescension, though at one of her openings she wore a tiara.

                    

Resurrection, 1969

Nor was Darthea  the tastemaker she would like to pretend to be. I remember her showing up unexpectedly at my 1986 exhibition at Blue Mountain. Her niece was  having an opening simultaneously nearby. It was the first time I had seen her since leaving Paris in 1971. She was the same outwardly intrepid person bellowing out in  her hideous mid-western nasal imitation of Ethel Merman, a blustering message stunning in its parochial obsequiousness: "You artists must be happy now that  you're allowed to paint again." Allowed to paint again! Who ever asked permission? If there was a lack of nerve and imagination, I can only point to where it was coming from.

She liked the self-portraits in the show; everybody did. They'd stand up to any that Lucian Freud could do. Their seductiveness, like writing in a first person voice,  owes their presence to complete directness of execution in support of that openness. So people wish I would only paint self-portraits, but I can’t.  Sometimes one has to wait years in between for the magic to return.

        


Self Portraits,
1986

 

 

Rabbi, Paris 1968 www copy 30%

For those too young to remember, or who were not even born, it’s hard to fathom the extreme reluctance by everybody in the art world to credit any artist for painting, let alone, painting figuratively. It is considered retrograde beyond belief, the lodestar for abuse. Darthea Speyer’s statement on encountering the artist at his opening at Blue Mountain Gallery in New York in 1986 where she declares how happy artists must be to once again be allowed to paint is a very real illustration of its repression.

By the mid-sixties, the avant-garde, having grown from idea to ideal, enters into decadence by assuming the mantle of sacred endeavor. In consequence, this fantasy anoints the members of this burgeoning cult with a belief in their supremacy. The artists rushing forth disdain any cause but their own ethic. Their pretending to sophistication is made all the more annoying by its lack of discrimination; they will not suffer the essential idea that might qualify their own prejudice, so they really can’t enter into an honest dialogue, nor do they think they need to.

Critical of what they consider romantic, they are, none-the-less, intensely, romantically possessed by self-righteousness in their belief to entitlement of ‘enlightened’ practice for themselves. They can’t see that their ‘self-evident’ precepts defining the purposes of art-making are only speculative, arbitrary borrowings from the politically biased views of theorists in linguistics and semiotics joined cheek to jowl with Marxist and Feminist provocateurs. Even forty years later, the word ‘regressive’ is still bantered about deriding any work owing some regard to the past or to metaphysical leanings suggesting the transcendental. To paint figuratively at all is associated with the repressive and undemocratic values of the past. They feel absolutely entitled to crush such reactionary aspirations.

They don’t see this as fanaticism or their words jingoism, for they know that they are in the right. It represents on so many fronts a closed-door policy. One becomes invisible as the jugglers and the clowns take the field. Their self- infatuation countenances total disregard for the grounding of the classical journeymanship and for the dedication needed to realize it with individual vision. It is hard to be treated as a beggar at one’s own table.

What Darthea Speyer doesn’t comprehend in the late 1960s is the unusual mastery that underpins his work in Paris. The artist is naïve when he imagines that just mentioning his being the runner up in the Rome Prize would suffice to establish his credentials. Neither Darthea nor anyone in Paris can imagine how accomplished is his earlier figurative painting and how complete and fully realized it is as a body of work. So nobody realizes how radical a departure it is for him to leave it behind.

Paris in the autumn of 1968 is a place of culmination for what completes Richard Rappaport’s Iconic Period. Various personal, socio-political, and artistic forces meet and coalesce in his painting. He has already spent two years towards its development since breaking out with Ship of Fools marking the escalation of the Viet Nam War in the summer of 1966.

It is not a frivolous moment with so many of our dramas disastrous. The great collective well of human image-making testifies to our plight- not only are we mortal; we search out evil. He is not Christian, and it is not for religious reasons that he is drawn to its imagery. Certainly composing with The Cross or a sarcophagus with its lid thrust open on a diagonal from the surface plane is structurally interesting for the artist, as seen in his January 1969 Resurrection, but what most attract him are the faces looking back at us from time as he visits the Romanesque altar pieces at the Louvre. In the autumn of 1968 the faces of the Madonnas touch a sympathetic chord.

There is a similar resolute inwardness in his first serious portraits done five years before his going to France and in the subsequent images of mourning, following the death of an older friend, Mrs. Ress, that will fuse into the larger world view as Viet Nam and Biafra continue to be the subject of his ensuing imagery of suffering and loss.

This early portraiture in the summer of 1963 becomes a pristine moment when with new found command he reaches the source of his endeavor after many years of study. The transformations that later come in Paris will extend his search deeper into the well of human imagery, but in truth he will never go beyond this moment where the souls captured in his painting look out with compassion to whomever stands before them.

 

ann weiner top copy 50%
mrs ress copy 50%

                                                

The Portrait of Evelyn Ress
 

It is late evening, and the lamps are on high up on a hill in a large, open living room decorated in 1950’s modernism- a continuous curving sweep of couch with matching carpet and wallpaper in materials of beige and pale green. A big picture window looks out beyond this prospect to more than a hundred acres of rainforest spread out below as if one were in a cockpit of a plane approaching a landing on Frick Park.

Well away from that view, without easel and maybe only a few sheets of newspaper laid out to protect the carpet from accident, two persons, one a boy in his late teens and a woman close to sixty, are observing a rite of portraiture.   

Evelyn Ress is sitting on her couch, in short paints as it is August in Pittsburgh, looking straight at the viewer, though her mind is elsewhere preoccupied with thoughts that she isn’t sharing. The young painter across from her has his on preoccupations. He hasn’t learned to engage his sitter while painting. She is left on her own.

The boy painting her is more concerned about how the lamp light falls on her face. At this beginning stage he paints mostly at night, lighting his models as if they were stones. What he finds most interesting are the multiple light sources arriving and merging on the face.

It’s not that he is a callow youth, but at eighteen he views all parents as old. It doesn’t occur to him yet how much they are going through a sound barrier of their own; that everything in their lives is hitting that wall, going against everything they have known up to then. What will be on the other side?

The canvas that will be left in the world after her will be a harsh reminder how stranded Evelyn Ress is on that island by herself.

                                       

Ann Weiner 1963 first state copy 45%

Less than two months later, the Portrait of Evelyn Ress joins half a dozen other portraits, along with a standing self portrait nude, all painted within the same few weeks that will be shown together that fall on the third floor of the College of Fine Arts.

Included is the Portrait of Ann Weiner, the wife of the artist Abe Weiner, with whom he has spent an apprenticeship when thirteen. Still addressed as Ricky, his childhood nickname, he has spent many a Saturday afternoon at their home just up the hill from his own, and Ann, six years later, is still comfortably at ease with this boy who is becoming a man.

Should one be embarrassed by one’s naiveté when still so unworldly? Four decades later in revisiting the slides of the portrait in progress, he is astonished and amused by what he first captures. He has forgotten how much her painted persona will go through a metamorphosis; the lingering look of complicity is all but missing in the final version of monumental bearing.

At the time, in his inexperience, he dismisses the breezy evocation of bemused female indulgence as too easily accomplished; she, so present with so little guard. He is still too young to be grateful when images arrive simply. Even so he knows he’s gambling; always the quandary whether to continue on a painting. But he is searching for an indelible grandeur. He aspires to Rembrandt not John Singer Sargent. 

For the consecutive evening he has planned on building upon soft, malleably paint, but using turpentine in the sweltering heat of August dries it too quickly. So returning, he’s forced to scrape away with palette knife the brittle ridges of the hardened brush strokes.  The scraping creates a patina, a ghostly palimpsest hovering just below the surface upon which the re-painted image becomes the remote face of a sibyl- so clearly different from the first vision where Ann, an attractive woman in her early forties, clearly delights in posing for her husband’s favorite student.

Posing with some misgivings the second evening, Ann Weiner transforms in front of him and on canvas into a deeper, fuller incarnation of woman. No longer seemingly as youthful in this view, she bears witness to life’s deeper moments. If the first touches an air of whimsical melancholy; the second arrives at a solemnity that is disturbingly lived. The loss and gain are blessing and pity.

Fortunately, earlier that afternoon he takes the painting in its first state to Mrs. Ress, who will photograph both versions. Actually, for most of these early portraits only Evelyn Ress’s slides exist. That too is blessing and pity; most have been dispersed or lost.

Like so many of these early paintings, the Portrait of Ann Weiner weaves its way through various friends’ hands. On Larry Blauvelt’s death, Luke sends it to Cary Joyce, the designer, in LA. Cary tells Luke, it looks out from the picture window to the sidewalk, and neighbors passing by as they walk their dogs stop and look into their living room at it.

                              

ann close copy 40
male nude 70%

Philip Pearlstein is showing figurative works in New York at the time that the younger artist reaches this first major step towards mastering painting. Both artists are going against fashion. Within the year the nineteen year old boy will produce major pieces equal to Pearlstein or that other older contemporary figurative painter Larry Rivers.

However, Philip’s agenda will soon set a more verifiably correct avant-garde attitude towards representation- its parameters demarcated by rhetorical posturing. Its subject will cease to be about people, even if only in their role as models, but become the act of representation itself where his models exist only as objects, stage props.

At the heart of his project, if we could use such a qualifying sentiment, is his determination to adhere to the idea of objectiveness. But his dogged insistence on his idea of objectivity turns observation into its symbolic representation. Purposefully, his heavy-handed illustration so similar to Soviet socialist realism in staging cliché takes Picasso’s theme of the artist’s model to an exaggerated parody of religious iconography. As such and over time, such forced protocol in a Pearlstein becomes its own fetish. 

As clearly strategic as Philip is, it’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t see past his self-satisfaction that his work is extremely decadent and extremely ruthless- the ultimate impulse of the technocratic mindset.

Could one see Pearlstein as a precursor to someone who looks at all living beings as so much protoplasm? There is something more human in Giorgio Morandi’s gatherings of bottles than the plumped down lumps of humanoids confined in a Pearlstein.

Give me the artist as voyeur, any day! Passion, adoration, lust make the painting worth the time spent on it. For all the attacks by the feminist wing directed at Balthus; their insistence of sweeping the drama of human attraction under the carpet is hypocritical. Our lives would be impoverished. Every father knows from very early on that his daughters prune and pose before the mirror. In everyday life the grown-ups need to show benign neglect and leave them be.

Say what you will, but a painting is a different issue. Either art speaks about life in its fullness, or it succumbs to censure. But at the very least, Balthus’s whimsy sees souls sprouting consciousness from his young models. His making them ‘objects’ of his fantasies is not truly the case; though they are his muse. 

In his objectifying their sexuality; they remain the active subjects of his paintings; their dreams and reveries a rite of passage as sexual awareness lingers into a luxurious and unrushed state of being. Balthus may paint the pubescent body, but that body is inseparable from the owner’s mind and the owner’s soul. That is not the case of a Pearlstein.

 

                                         *   *   *   *   *   *    

Still one wonders whether Pearlstein, being well versed in Chinese art history, understands the choices he has made or how they may eventually be seen in comparison to the younger Rappaport; for they make a contrasting example parallel to the two distinct classes of artists in ancient china.

There are professional artists who administer to the commercial needs of the rich city dwellers, and there are the Zen scholar-artists who retreat to their hermitages in the mountains. The illustrative work of the first group is delineated in obviousness; while the images of the hermit artists are more poetically transcendentThe differences may be seen as generational. Pearlstein is positioning himself as a leader of the New Realism and takes the genre of the artist’s model in the studio as a form of Pop Art icon; while the younger man intuitively will follow Andre Malraux’s concept of the museum without walls in which Picasso’s borrowing from diverse cultures becomes his ultimate inspiration in alchemy.

It will become his agenda- this form of spiraling evolution. But he fails to stand his ground before the art world that has determined that no one should do that; the territory is claimed.  Anyway, no one has time to wait for such a prodigious enterprise. It cannot be done superficially as if choosing from the available menu. Though, if that had been done, it would have followed an avant-garde proscription and become an inquiry into period cliché, but what a pointless exercise in pedantry! He doesn’t wish to do that. So he can only grow into the process as it evolves. He dreams of poetry.

 

   *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

 

Evelyn Ress drawing 1965 copy
chicago poster cropped 50%

Back in 1963 Evelyn Ress will take the young painter under her wing. She is grateful her portrait will stay behind when she is gone. Along with it would come in another year three sheets of drawings that show multiple views of her as she holds her throat. It becomes her regular gesture. She blames her soreness on her cigarette smoking, saying she has to quite.From the center of one of these sheets arrives the motif at the bottom of a large etching restating the two heads shown one above the other- like an angel in mourning holding a fallen soul. So Evelyn falls asleep briefly in the quiet stillness as he draws her. Those two faces from the etching will become the poster for his exhibition at the University of Chicago in the spring of 1967, but Evelyn Ress never sees it.

In Cambridge for the summer of 1967, soon after Evelyn’s passing, he begins using that motif for a series of mourning clowns that by the following spring will join the motif from his mother’s etching to make the more complex composition of The Work of Mourning in the spring of ‘68 that threads its way into the first iconic works in Paris culminating in Father, Vulture, Holy Butterfly. From there the motif does a reverse flip into Icarus in the spring of ’69. The motifs from these two deeply bit linear etchings are the bridge on which he travels in his painting from portraiture to icon. Eventually the faces become so subdued as to all but dissolve in the fabric- a haunting palimpsest of ghosts.

 *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

 

clown first 60%

 

chaloner head mourning copy 20%

 

etchimg ma first copy 15%
Chapter 40 etching Ma The Eye who witnesses All copy 50%

The etching as a genre comes to us as an archival monument pictorially. In stark black ink its sacramental mood almost always flavors the image with nostalgia if not melancholy. We do not expect verisimilitude; we are looking at a hand drawn artifact made in the rhythmic pulse of script dug through the ground of wax to the plate; then submerged in an acid bath, its lines get bit into groves. When left to be eaten by the acid for a deeper line, the zinc plates erode unevenly along the edges of those grooves. Therein lies its tactile beauty and the power of its severe fiction.

The gnarled, heavily encrusted paintings that come from these etchings, in motif and process, are already in Pittsburgh in tune with the sobriety of the Romanesque altar and primitive fetish that he encounters in Paris in the autumn of 1968. The densely layered paint on the canvas suggests a panel on wood– more devotional object than illusionary picture.  

It is the craggy paint, thickly applied and gouged into the densely cryptic, penitential iconography of death in these paintings that so offends Darthea Speyer as Cobra School influenced. Yet she makes allowances that same year; for Leon Golub’s large scaled, expressively ruff-painted Greek warriors borrowed from the antique that get a solo exhibition.

Certainly, Rouault, who must have influenced the Cobra School in such works as The King at the Carnegie Museum, has a special place in his imagination the year before coming to Paris. But mostly it is Picasso of the thirties merging in his mind with the terrible wrath of Romanesque pietas that in that autumn of 1968 touches such a formidable chord of weary fatalism in his own grief-stricken Madonnas as the wars in Biafra and Viet Nam continue unstoppable.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

 

escape 1968 copy 25%
Providence in Motion  After Icuras 1970 45%
Asleep by the Tomb 1969 45%

That Darthea Speyer fails to grasp that a generation of artists is about to return to paining costs him dearly. Her completely rejecting her mother’s competent appraisal that Father, Vulture, Holy Butterfly should be shown testifies to some very unpleasant realities. Is he seen so independent of the obligations towards patronage that they need to let him stew in contrition without recall. He leaves Paris without a token appearance in any of her group exhibitions; even when, as she tells him on her return from her winter break from Paris, and so missing his paintings in the exhibition of young american artists at the American Center, that colleagues say his work alone is worthy of notice.

But where Darthea Speyer betrays herself is not listening to her instincts to show all three canvasses of Joseph in Egypt in the spring of 1971.

Instead, a spiteful ugly sneer would continue to follow him in years to come in New York whenever he would encounter Darthea’s sister, the painter Nora Speyer, on the streets of Soho. What has been his crime?

We can only imagine the games that Darthea and her brother James Speyer play. It is not a secret. There is an occasion at Sandy Calder’s opening at Gallery Maeght’s reception afterwards. When at the bar, the young artist is questioned by a dealer as to where he might have seen him before and who up till then smiling, abruptly frowns, turns his back on the artist and walks away at the mention of Darthea Speyer. Sentenced with no repel. What could have been imagined to have solicited such an unnecessary rudeness!

One supposes just like the Hollywood casting couch there are young male artists who are prepared to accommodate James Speyer when he comes to town. And one can understand an older person desiring a younger one, but there is a big difference between seduction when there is an indication of reciprocal interest and predatory demand.

 

Father Vulture Holy Butterfly Magazine 1969 130%

Only her mother is willing to see clearly how “wonderful” his painting would look in her gallery! Only her mother, lucid at eighty-nine and still sharp as a tack, looks at the young artist before her with the clear appraisal of her own many years of involvement with making art and observing people, and accepting him, willingly responds to the painting that he unrolls on the gallery’s slate floor before her. She is dreadfully ugly. The single, large convoluted pearl hanging as a pendant from a chain from her neck mimics her nose.

She is the dowager matriarch of the family, a friend of the Kaufmanns who build Falling Water, a formidable person once autocratic and demanding, used to limousines and asserting her will, now being left on the sidelines. Though frail, she is still very astute, hardly in mental dotage as Darthea would have it.

He feels a reverence towards her and her responding assurance. They have never met before, and he will never see her again. Yet he will remember her poise as she turns to Darthea to attest her enthusiasm for his painting as one of his great moments. Forty years later in Pittsburgh, whenever he passes her former house, he will silently bless her memory.

Nor can he forget how close Pittsburgh and Paris were and how far away he was pushed from the playing field.      

Still, if at twenty-three when he first arrives in Paris, he is recapitulating some of the developments of earlier generations of modernists; he is taking those influences to other places. The artist isn’t pretending to be an innovator, but he also knows he grasps a core knowledge that is at the root of all that he admires. And he can do it with his own signature imprint.

The unspoken contract of any tradition is that one extends the range from the example of the previous generation. The Renaissance could not have happened if it had laid out proprietary claims the way the Modern era has insisted.

The strengths of Picasso have also proved to be his limitations. In a sense, Picasso’s images are templates. In many instances his treatments are perfunctory; they are full of potentialities more promised than realized. What is delightfully refreshing in Picasso’s drawn painting in his Blue and Rose periods- their insistence on the provisional quality of the sketch becomes an irksome proficiency that hobbles many of his later images in predictable habit.

That Picasso remains within the boundaries of his own formula should be license enough for others to pick up where he sloughs off. Picasso opens a door to a view, but he doesn’t wander everywhere within it. No one can. But as a guide and teacher he points to adventures that he can not claim to have traveled in its entirety.

Likewise, if de Kooning opens further inroads to Picasso’s new world, there remain other possibilities to enter into imaginatively. To see that world in summer or winter makes for very different experiences; as are a host of other qualifiers to an image.

Perhaps Michel Foucault’s contemporaneous observation on the phenomenon of the library of 1967 sheds light on what is in the consciousness of this young painter as he opens himself to the encyclopedia of art so easily available in Paris and so similar to Foucault’s speaking of the “imaginary” as it “grows among signs, from book to book, in the interstice of repetitions and commentaries.”

For there to be decreed formal taboo prohibiting artists from revisiting Picasso or de Kooning or whomever, and in the interstices between these artists to find an imaginary place of their own is an obvious demonstration of vested interest maintaining an absolute patent when ironically Picasso and de Kooning themselves are deliberate raiders of all that comes before them.

It is an impossible interdiction for any tradition to thus remain vibrant if artists are refused license to use the invention of contemporaries unless the point is to kill the tradition. That is the agenda of those in power in the art world against which this young artist is already rebelling.  

It is the strength of tradition that it is elastic; it stretches to make accommodations; its song can be sung in a myriad of ways. If it is self-referential, it is because its stories are timeless. That remains the goal: to find in the continuum those places of timelessness, those moments of wholeness. 

In 1967, Richard Rappaport is already encountering in his research to painting what Michel Foucault delineates for the imaginary. But he refuses the easy alchemy of collaged signage; he is looking for something more solid and more physically sensual in form than the destabilizing contextual mockery from abutments of casually thrown texts, the promiscuity of contemporary collisions- a Babel that erodes civilization to the point of desolation.

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Escape The Oratory Mural Institutes www red copy 60%
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Top: Upper and Lower Kingdom, 1968
Below: Biafran Madonna, 1968

Biafran Madonna new scan old slide
Chapter 1  Ship of Fools me by rudder copy 50&

In the previous summer of 1966 he had spent, as would become his way, a very lonely time. He sees no one as he paints Ship of Fools. It doesn’t even occur to him to look up Mel Bochner. He doesn’t realize that they are only several blocks from each other, but none-the-less, Bochner is on that boat.

It will take four decades before the painter recognizes his image of Bochner, that gleeful trickster wearing the sneering horse skull, as the avatar steering art’s mindless course back then during the Viet Nam era and now with the Iraq war. For the art-world runs parallel to our politics; every action we do is in response to the other and forms our collective will. Sooner or later one must stand one’s ground; must commit art to life. 

Back then, as now, Bochner takes on the fugitive guise of a chameleon- colorless, opinion-less, bloodless. He hides behind pedagogy. If theory shapes message, Bochner’s is an empty vessel. Bochner’s dry, earth-bound spectacle is the inverse extreme from expressionist passion by giving us a simulacrum of critical discourse to disguise the vacancy of his sorry mission. He bops about on his little pool; paddling in circles to a place where he tells us is the new destination for enlightened thought.

But if this is passage to a brave new world in the summer of ‘66, the younger artist must decline. So Rappaport will say bon voyage to advanced practice.

He will be in Paris when it shifts from minimal formalism and conceptualism into its full incarnation informed by primitive impulse in the material object of women’s craft soon to be enshrined in the work of divination by Eva Hesse.

In this most primitive aspect, the fetish cannot be anything other than redeemed by the viewer’s reverence. It simply does not enlist further engagement beyond a devotional rite of invested sacred embodiment- definitely a primitive compulsion. 

It is that upon his return to the States in the spring of 1971 that becomes the enthroning moment of the women’s movement- a movement that is itself fetish as it rides the wave of flower power to become the next installment of the avant-garde’s dream and so fetish within fetish.

Rappaport isn’t enamored by the compulsive systems-making of Sol LeWitt that intrigues Bochner, Smithson, and Hesse. It is just as well in the summer of 1966 that he doesn’t encounter Mel. It has already been hard to stay one’s course as words like regressive and reactionary are thrown around. With someone like Bochner it’s more slyly insinuated into a seemingly disinterested observation. It had taken a while before one woke up to the disarmingly shy seduction that places one under the other’s favor and under a disadvantage. 

Like so many other collisions through space and time, whose impacts though brief are compelling by the distance the trajectories must follow to complete their cycles; there is nothing casual in this meeting of antagonists. A great hand has chosen to move them about on the chessboard; for it is not by their dispositions alone that align them on red or black. They have been summoned to play their assigned parts. That becomes clear with time. It has been already more than half a century.                                 

When as a second grader, Richard Rappaport starts in Linden School; Mel Bochner is either in eighth grade or has just graduated. All those years before, Mel Bochner, returning to visit their wonderful art teacher Miss Johnson at Linden School, is for the younger artist an almost mythic figure. It should also be noted that this hero worship is not founded upon seeing any piece of art work by the older boy, but by Mel’s self-possession and Miss Johnson’s obvious devotion. That radiant charm, so necessary for the guru or the charlatan, will be cultivated for optimum reward.

Of course the older Bochner is totally indifferent to individuals in that early episode of winning a following. But even then, seeing Mel standing not more than ten feet away with Miss Johnson aglow with pleasure as they speak, one remembers vividly Mel’s T shirt sleeves rolled just so, his keen awareness of being in the limelight.

The younger artist will assume the place of last protégé of his beloved Miss Johnson before she marries and leaves teaching. She adores him as he does her. The younger boy will never play second fiddle to the older fellow. He knows the tune he wishes to play.

This progress, already a ritual of re-possession, suggests in this little remembrance the beginning of a string of relationships as the younger artist enters where the other leaves, most notably with Mel’s foremost early mentor, Robert Lepper, and so form a continuum spreading outward into the greater art-world. This despite the tenuous and fragile nature of their meetings in person over the years; their mutual antipathy kept civil only by the infrequency of encounter. 

Drastically dissimilar in temperament, philosophy, and talent, and because of it and that moment in the culture where they cross paths, they represent categorically opposing views. The consequence of this parting of the ways makes for a very serious polemic dispute that is far from over forty years later and which makes a sort of symmetrical dialectic with Lepper’s other former student and assistant, Philip Pearlstein. Rappaport finds himself caught between two pincers.

It’s very unpleasant to be the odd man out, but very early on he sees his position solidified by his differences to those two adversaries. Actually, he diagrams his conceptual place in the constellation of former Carnegie Tech students in Robert Lepper’s orbit, making an imaginary pentagon including Warhol and Borofsky, each distinctively set at reciprocating polemic opposition to the others. Once placed in the context of this opposition, Rappaport’s fugue spanning tradition attains a sharper conceptual clarity.

Then, one might suspend the question of naiveté in such an act of faith, or embrace the ambiguity that doesn’t announce itself in advance or an image that goes beyond the definitions of language to an affirmation that needn’t prove itself for it had never doubted its own power. Then one might concede with more assurance that the conjuring of the figurative image is solely the incarnation of the ineffable; that the one can’t exist without the other; that the confluence of what is abstract and what is figurative is but a place of transformations needing no constraints.

The vocabulary of the ages is now at our fingertips; we need not be self-conscious. The simplicity of intent is where he leaves his antagonists behind.

 

Self in Accused 1971 copy 12%
Artist TEXT Ship of Fools NYC summer 1966 copy

Ship of Fools, July 1966

So it is just as well that Rappaport doesn’t connect with Mel in the summer of ‘66; though for sure he would have raced over like a dog panting, tail waging only to be dismissed for the infraction of familiarity. He hasn’t a clue about the practice of one-upmanship. Conversations with Mel are always as if staring into the face of Pan: the pea shuffled, hidden; always the face of Pan grinning, teasing one to play. But by 1966 one has already had one’s fill. So the choice will be to drop one’s old friends as it has become theirs.

Forty years later, it all becomes clear how bleak his world must be, and what a surly, petty headmaster he is. Bochner’s ultimate script is the failure of communication, whereby entropy erodes intent with a multiplicity of meaning. He disavowals any cooperative equality mutually empowering human dialogue with the prophecy of its dissimulation, incompatibility of protocol, cancellation, and collapse.

That’s a bitter commentary from someone approaching seventy to bestow on the present and the future. Nor need we accept it. Communications remain with us that touch a need already open, extended in active faith- heartfelt, reciprocal, and generous, and if you will, poetic, not the work of accountants demanding a tally at the end of the day that adds up to what has been promised at the opening bell.

For Bochner there is no exchange possible. His analysis of communication, solely utilitarian as a means of negotiation, straight away implies guarding the gates to ourselves, protecting our guises, our masks of concealment. This negative place of purposeful concealment is Bochner’s domain.

His is not a friendly arena. The means of address that Bochner illustrates and uses keep the receiver at arms length. He is not a disinterested party, a crossover psychologist, a neo-Beckett, or Dadaist revivalist, but its master of ceremonies, advocate and promoter that our communications, and consequently our ties to one another can only fail. Pretty grim!

There is something troubling in Bochner’s performance. There is no sadness, no hope that humans might ever, even on occasion, find respite for our pre-determined condition, inexorably alone, as messages wash over us in languages we can’t decipher. We are sent to the River of Woe to thrash about at the bottom of the falls. More are following from above. He offers no redemption, no hope. It is bleak.

His scorn testifies to an utter lack of faith- in art, in life, in the joyous song to life, in affirming life in spite of everything. Most of all that faithlessness to art and to life ultimately testifies to a great emptiness inside. Of course he can’t share our confidence, can’t confide in us, or laugh with us.

To be arriving at seventy and not exult in mystery; to bother to paint and not rejoice in its pleasure; to build closures instead of revealing horizons; can a man have so little compassion for himself! Or is he Prometheus forced to drag around that old cadaver called Mel Bochner, the paterfamilias of Conceptualism. Give it up. Relinquish that old shoe!

But transcendence is a word that Bochner doesn’t seem to know. His censure of poetry displaces it entirely with his pedagogy on its failed mechanics. A tool is only as good as the vision guiding it; in Bochner’s hand it becomes a bludgeon.

No matter for how long one allows an untamed work in progress to linger indefinitely, sooner or later its randomness needs resolve. One can’t eliminate personal responsibility; intention must be formed purposefully. The consequences of the aesthetic of incoherence, its inconclusiveness, though pretending to indeterminacy as an avenue for discovery, can only stand behind that search technique for so long before one concludes nothing is there.

That promiscuity, if only acknowledged as experimentation, might have held our respect, but it is insufficient accolade for someone like Bochner, who wishes to preside with absolute authority to enlightened consciousness. 

So it is dumbfounding to watch his return full force in 2008. Anyone with sense would have stepped quietly away to remain the grand old man of conceptual art. Whatever that was worth art historically, it now must be weighed for the grudging example he has obliged us. With money flowing so profusely, had the art-market made too many entreaties, or did he still imagine himself the piper?

Or, is he blind to the simplest truths- that discourse is profitless when so mean spirited; one can only stand behind its critique for so long before others conclude that the artist has nothing to say. If Bochner’s subjectivity reaches out to others, it is unclear what he believes his sensibilities have offered, and why anyone could possibly benefit.

The original impetus that propels an artist is soon dissipated in equal proportion to his following. By then the idea has hardened into ‘practice’. Once what was steely nerve morphs into acerbity. The act becomes a little brittle. But the gallery system demands product; the artist is possessed by his own success. He succumbs to the anticipation of applause.

But mortification arrives with the weight of needing to please disciples; needing to placate the insatiable wish for entertainment or lose their confidence. Sometimes Robespierre ceases to inspire and is sent to the guillotine. 

The spectacle is riveting. Who in the audience doesn’t shudder as high above our heads upon the trapeze the performer takes hold of the bar and pushes off? But somehow it isn’t right. We gasp; it’s boggling even to see one’s enemy lose his grasp and freefall.

Artists don’t have nets; only mud below awaits those whose day is over. The swagger and bluff has lost its luster. That set of wings he has strapped on has gotten a little worn out. Though once proposed as the main act, it is only an intermezzo, a few minutes to race for popcorn or to the restroom.

One look at Bochner’s last four lines: NOBODY GIVES A SHIT, PISS OFF, KISS MY ASS, and DROP DEAD that end a list of inanities scribbled on an advertisement page in Artforum announcing his March 2008 exhibition at Peter Freeman. Inc. is enough to make evident to some of us that Mel Bochner is in serious need of counseling. But perhaps it is already too late.

Mel Bochner has become just another desperate swimmer in the aesthetic of incoherence headlong racing towards the teaming swamp at the bottom pile-up, in company with a host of lemming-like creatures thinking he knows the way plummeting along beside him. Had he heard his old tune from forty years before echoing back with the prophecy of his coming and fallen under its spell? How perversely Narcissistic! How suitably illustrative of grim reality dressed in splendor!

A few emerging critics write enthusiastically, and he jumps like a fish onto the deck. Writhing with banality astonishing to see, Bochner is revealing himself fully. The old raconteur is whitebait. One could slap all that thrashing hard against the boards, but he’s doing it himself.

The deciding moment in this history of antagonists comes in the summer of 1966 when both parties, Rappaport and Bochner, clearly step away from the other, knowing full well there is no conciliation possible.

While 1966 through 1968 is a turning point for the conceptualized fetish; so that period is equally a fertile time for a return to an affirmation of figurative imagery in the broadest range of possibility and to the integrity of painting. Rappaport will keep to painting paintings. Everything that he needs to say in form can reside within the square or rectangle, and from the woven veil a world emerges capable of transcending space and time.

Of course, it is simply a choice that at its inception in 1963 with his first run of portraits is already against the grain of approved art making. For him, painting’s presence is different from and not compensated by the context of signage and texts.

If the conceptualists believe the sparest notation to be equal in purity to abstract thought; they are indulging themselves. How can their idea of the transparent act of conceptualization conceived in the cerebral cortex remain pure once made material? Furthermore, their premise begrudges the sensual dimension of experience operating through the thalamus where human imagination balancing the living, standing, breathing conditions in a world of weight and temperature and light and tactile pressure are so inseparable from cognitive functioning. We are integral beings capable of merging a unified perception of all aspects of being in the world. We are not computers; some of us have souls.

Why insist on separating the Dionysian from the Apollonian. The greatest art embraces the totality of being. It is that that we share intimately.  

The conceptualists’ assertion makes a fetish of what has existed long before. In the drawings that survive from the Renaissance unfinished areas remain within formally finished works, marked-in conceptually to acknowledge that the physical process of the sketch is guided by formal ideal. Conceptual drawing within the breathing totality of the ‘realistic’ image has had a place in the repertoire for centuries as part of the unique experience of perception whereby the viewer achieves insight into the creative act without displacing emphasis from the image as an emotional vehicle. It has always been part of what constitutes mastery in drawing as distinct from other forms of notation of inventive, utilitarian systems. The issue is not that other creative acts of invention aren’t intriguing, but that the art work is a distinct conjuring of the life-force inherent in being. And it is that uniquely intimate experience that holds us in its spell.

When ones compares the conceptualists’ diagrammatic layouts with those Leonardo portrait drawings that leave notations in juxtaposition with the fleshed in; it becomes apparent how borrowed the concept is and how sterile the conceptual drawings of the 1960s are.

Look at some of the best of Rembrandt’s sparse abstract notes on landscapes or his pen and brush drawing of the Seated Old Man in the Louvre. In that great drawing one feels everything- the light and warmth from the unseen fireplace and the quiet peacefulness as the old man dozes; yet the markings have the fresh simplicity of mid-career Mondrian gently touching upon forms in space.

Better to have a refresher course in basic geometry to comprehend the physical world with an overview of a Platonic ideal. Otherwise, the conceptualists’ maps and charts require the effort of self-hypnosis in order to engage without apology such posturing. They have turned their act into a fetish. 

Still, in 1968 in his studio in Vincennes, a straight Metro ride to the Louvre, there is something in his own juggling from memories of paintings and the reproductions of paintings that may be included in Foucault’s vision of the phenomenon of the library. His journey will become a narrative whose chapters will be demarcated by paintings which reflect upon their models from different cultures and periods as well as from his own earlier images- reproductions pulled from various sources lay about the studio floor as images arrive from this scrambled accumulation. The next few years in Paris his painting will come from echoes of paintings of paintings. And they will arrive slowly one image at a time. 

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Biafran Madonna White second version 1986

Biafran Madonna

The Eye: The One Who Witnesses All

The eye went back before time that you’d think it were in the public domain. Yet they insist on accusing me of trespass.

The Biafran Madonna bears her scornful solitude in the stiff medieval posture of resignation that nothing more could reach her- her child lies dead in her arms. All that is left of grief is the armored defiance of a mourning mother condemning betrayal by those profiting from war.

If I borrow from late thirties Picasso as my model for expressing sorrow, it is the natural stage to enter in the development of my painting as I let go of portraiture and enter the realm of the icon. And if some wish to berate me; at least, I don’t forget that there is a world at war going on.

One can only wonder have the conceptual minimalists back in New York? For they make a clear choice. They will not postpone prospecting in the laboratory of perceptual guises- that house of mirrors reflecting the multiplicity of reflections into infinity. Hello in there. Is someone home? Quelle horror! Whatever their sophistries advance, it’s hard to discover why we should care beyond a moment’s curiosity.

If decades later in reminiscing about his friendships, Mel Bochner insinuates, for no apparent reason other than to ingratiate their standing before us, that he and Robert Smithson and Sol LeWitt are concerned to get us out of Viet Nam; why don’t they protest it in their exhibitions? It seems that they will not risk the consequences of uncompromised conscience, comfortable in arm chair forays into the speculative lexicon of political activism. But what of commitment, will they enter the breach?

Bochner and Smithson only play at being bad boys- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in a tamed wilderness, truant within the prescribed limits, take their escapades further and further into the pedant’s pretend campaign infiltrating the pages of the art journal. It doesn’t sound to me like Four Dead in Ohio.

Later, Bochner dispenses for our erudition his eulogy on the passing of art’s means to deliver the goods- but never is there a substantive message as it may apply to our lives. The charade he and Smithson first mime is a fugitive performance; as is Bochner’s elusive assertion years later a dubious claim- as if they were in the résistance.

But that can hardly be unexpected from the master of equivocation. After all, isn’t that the principal message of his work or at least it will be in 2008- that our communications are less than equivocal. Otherwise, if Mel Bochner wishes in that long hot summer of 1966 to address the subject of war, his message doesn’t come across. And that should make us wonder about his ability as an artist to communicate.

Either, all is pointless shuffling of readings as he insists, or Mel Bochner’s art is a kaleidoscope of clutter. Truth need be offered in a recognizable form; otherwise, one can only ask why need we bother? 

But for Bochner to turn around  forty years later to pretend to us that he and his artist friends concern themselves about the war in Viet Nam seems to be purposefully deflecting any critical oversight that might question their not putting their art on the line during those crucial war torn years. Nothing seems further from the truth.

It all begins to take shape that Mel has been cultivating a roose. 

As such, Mel Bochner should not be granted the last word testifying to the conscientious intentions of his famous coterie. If it were that important an issue to them back then, recounting their stories now should not exclude their moral culpability in finding safe haven for themselves and uninterrupted careers in art for art’s sake while the Viet Nam War is at its height.

Only in the work of Eva Hesse can one feel something different- the evocation of mindless, mechanized degradation of war and occupation and the camps, the shadowy response to her own personal history of escaping the Holocaust. Hesse’s sojourn and return from Germany begins a ritual performance of shattering consequence; she becomes the re-enactment of violation. In more than symbolic fashion she absorbs its poison. Afterward everything she touches holds its contamination. As much as she binds her objects in wrappings, it cannot be contained.

Viet Nam need not be specified; her work subliminally acts as a conduit to that pervasive consciousness, so different from today, of the war overwhelming everyone on a psychic level. Unlike the work of her male counterparts, hers operates inexplicably beyond a theoretical dialectic. She is an artist.

In comparison, none of the other principals: Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, or Mel Bochner, venture outside the containment of their soap boxes. Robert Smithson fares no better if Bochner insists on their concerns about the war. Smithson’s adventure to make the biggest and best sand castle’s pier on the elusive mirage of a salt basin can only be seen as entertaining an escapist’s idyll, the very caricature of fancy daydreams for the cover of Vanity Fair.

Yes, you may like its lyrical setting, but we’re talking about the historical moment that has saturated everybody’s consciousness. What bearing does that disengaged gesture have to do with our lives when we are in war?

History repeating Itself 2001 copy35%

In 1966 I will not sever my art from the world as definitively as they. The war is very real to me. I have barely escaped being taken.

Called up to report to the medical exam that autumn, I am considered perhaps more than unstable, too great a risk. The army doctors are puzzled by my not electing to go to Yale if only to stay out of the war. I tell them I detest the idea of anybody dictating to me how I should approach my art. At issue for them is not that I am resisting the draft, but that I am so outside the normal categories of behavior that I’m in a world of my own. They can’t comprehend what to do with me. Discipline might backfire; for what if I were to become a liability where others depend on me! So the doctors let me go, relieved not to take that chance.

I will be called back a year later to repeat the exam with the same outcome. I am exhilarated by the reprieve which affords me a new lease on life and new horizons possible. Still, just because I am free doesn’t mean I forget. The war swirling around could not easily be swept aside. And there is precedent for artists to paint in protest of man’s inhumanity: Goya, Delacroix, Beckmann, and Picasso; just to name a few. My images go deeper into mourning.

Perhaps the greatest difference between me and those in the avant-garde is my acceptance of the longer view- my belief in the continuity of a living tradition; that success need be measured against the background of the ages. At twenty-four I am extending a journey that allows a dialogue with my spiritual predecessors.

My arriving in Paris is for me a staggering, solemn confrontation of faces- all with the same eye painted in outline in kohl. Looking back to the stern eye in the etching of my mother done two years previously; one can follow its progress to a stylistic conclusion in these new icons done in the autumn and winter of ’68. 

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Do you think Picasso had a patent on the faces that carried despair through the millennium? With Biafran Madonna I take the motif of that eye to a place where Picasso is indistinguishable from the faces on Egyptian sarcophagi and Romanesque icon. Everybody living in the circle of the Mediterranean used that eye long before and long after it became a hieroglyphic of the Pharaohs.

Possibly contradicting myself having said I won’t truck with the fetish, the eye of course is a fetish as is the icon. But a Raphael Madonna and Child is something more, and so is my use of such carriers of value. It’s one thing to make use of an icon or symbol; it’s another occasion when a theory or working manner takes on the obsessive, proprietary authority of the sacred. Then we get into the machinations of a cult. It is in this sense that the avant-garde insists that others obey its compulsions.  

Just as the Renaissance changed the religious icon into human portrayal; I reverse the process. I leave direct observation from life to return to a stylized motif realized by carving away paint. I am trying to get to a more physical essence in the act of painting. The icon gives me the freedom to be more responsive in its doing. I’ve never painted like this before.

Biafran Madonna is the first painting where I build up in oil paint applied with the palette knife, in dense, multiple layers of ivory white, a surface that takes on the quality of cameo, and upon which the calligraphic dark umber contours of the figurative motif gets applied and carved.

The shapes that make her hood might come from any culture, including in the painting that immediately follows: Rabbi, wrapped in tallith and tefillin and holding a Torah. But in the Biafran Madonna  the whole figure makes a cross cradling a dead child. This motif will form the basis for the central figure in Father, Vulture, Holy Butterfly that combines with the first and second paintings done that autumn: Upper and lower Kingdom and Scorpio.

Then in the spring of 1969, after painting Icarus, all that remains of these images is the eye alone in Valley of the Kings with just a suggestion of a pharaoh’s helmet crown in an otherwise abstracted landscape where Giotto turns towards the canvas covered portals of Lee Bontecou. There, the process of erasure scrapes and presses most of the painted surface down to stain the outlines of indigo into the yellow ochre on the exposed threads of canvas.

The image of Valley of the Kings  recreates abstractly the topography around Giotto’s St. Francis pulling off his coat to give to a beggar in one of the frescoes at Assis. I love the way the coat turns inside out as the story takes place before the similarly convoluted landscape of passages between the mountains crowding round them in the background.

It’s a pretend stage setting where everything is flattened and in shallow depth- a Carnival progression of scaled down architectural  facades as those carried on wagons in which every prop in the scene is in diminutive scale like the bejeweled reliquaries within the mini-chapels of churches or the burial chambers of the Pharaohs.

With Icarus and Valley of the Kings my images play upon the scraped down fields of colors saturating the weave of the canvas. Back in New York, color field painting finds its niche for a few short seasons.

 

Valley of the Kings 1969 copy
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icon close horiz resurrection

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