Beginnings & Endings

Chapter 4


                                                                   

 

    

A  Conceptual Chessboard of Players

 Forty years later it all became clear what my decision was  all about. I went to France to work on the material for a website. As images got scanned onto the computer at Jim  Morrissey’s old farmhouse in  the Midi, I told my long lost  friend anecdotes from thirty years.

 Granted, I had occasionally told these stories over the years, but not one after another over ten days, all brought  to the surface as images came on the computer screen. A picture both literally and  figuratively crystallized. I began to see a panorama of images unfolding as if memento-mori left by an enigmatic artist of an obscure pre-renaissance backwater, a modern version to be sure. It was like a  dream  half-realized upon waking. Its comprehension coming upon one  suddenly, though one knows it in one’s bones.

So it has followed a conscious and unconscious plan. The  portraits hold court on a conceptual chessboard of  hierarchic places of honor. I carry it about in my  imagination wherever I go, making up  my greater identity  this community peering from their squares.

It has its share of absentees. Some who had my affection are  not realized for they never sat for their portrait. However, those may have paintings associated with them like “Valley of the Kings” given to  Helene Villiers. It is an allegorical  abstraction that marks a turning point in the evolution of  my imagery and remains as it has for decades a mystery as to  its whereabouts and hers.

 That adds poignancy to a rather striking event. Only now in these last few years has it faded into numbness. Still, I look back and am thankful that I was once young. Ridiculously young, I should say,  and so goofy looking in  the photographs that Jim Morrissey took of me beside the  paintings.

 Jim had witnessed our meeting in the Paris Metro as Helene  followed me into the car. I still remember his approaching  us with disbelief on his face as he followed in our wake, the doors closing; his face  looking first at her then back to me, then back to her. She looked straight ahead. I asked  him: “Say something in French” as she offered: “I speak a  little English.” How many treasures does one need!

 

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 There is the girl on the right side looking towards “The  Barren Womb”. She has been with me since my painting her in John Bennett’s studio, under the skylight. That was in the spring of 1979, and I was  already living in Brooklyn, but  periodically I would watch John and Karen’s carriage house  on Downing Street when they would go to their little  farmhouse for a long holiday. So I had gone there  prepared to start a major painting and take advantage of that sky light.

 When I say that she’s been with me ever since, I don’t mean her person; she disappeared almost immediately. Who remains with me is her radiant and intensely vulnerable persona that I painted, and  which had instantly attracted me to her. I had not known her previously, and I don’t remember how we  met. I must have immediately asked to paint her, and she complied.

 The portrait was the glowing outcome to one of the briefest of white-hot attractions I’ve known. But it ended as abruptly as it began for she vanished in a rush of hysteria. I can’t even remember her name  now. We did the portrait,  business first. Then we started to get into each other when panic struck. She just heaved herself to her feet saying as  she did: “No, no, no! I got to go.” And she rushed out the   door. I never saw her again. Yet she remains as enduring a presence as any of my memories.

 

 

 

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 The Double Portrait of Jake and Esther Schwartz

  Then there is the double portrait of Jake and Esther  Schwartz born by request of their daughter Barbara. She was modeling for Potiphar’s wife in my studio at le Cite des Arts. From the fourth floor  windows we overlooked the Ilse Saint Louis floating in the Seine and beyond: the dome of  the Pantheon high on the hill straight ahead on the other  side of the river.

 More than once a crescent moon attached itself briefly to its tip and above it a star, or perhaps a planet- I can’t be sure, as I’m not good at such things. It was a picture postcard. After Barbara left I  would draw the beige curtains  and block it out. She had been my guest for four months.

We had had a brief prior skirmish in the autumn of 1966. I had  graduated the spring before. She was a freshman. She had the  sheen of moonlit sea lion. For a while she was radiant. That  memory didn’t  keep. She smothered it in sunbathing to my chagrin.

 That’s when I also met Aladar Marberger, her long time  friend from their high school years in Philadelphia. He was a year ahead of her in the department of painting and  design. That’s where they  would meet Elaine de Kooning a few years later when I would be already in Paris. 

 Barbara and Aladar had one of these hardfast collaborations operating between them. He was gay but obviously adored her and the readiness in her to follow his lead. Her feline  beauty acted as a foil to his  crisp presence. They were a  team. She followed him to Pittsburgh. She was always under  his wing.

 Together they played the very needy Elaine de Kooning with  their complementary presence. Aladar supported Elaine with  his confidence and determination, and Barbara looked towards  Elaine as her  heroine and role model. For all her supposed high status in the art world, Elaine came to Pittsburgh for  the money. It must have felt like a Siberian exile, and she  spent much of her frantic energies racing back  and forth to New York City.

 Together, Barbara and Aladar soothed her sense of displacement with a new family of devotees and protectors.  That inner group also included Aladar’s sidekick Larry  DeCarlo, who would eventually  inherit, more than a dozen years later, the vastly diminished Fischbach Gallery sold  off to Aladar once Marilyn Fischbach’s husband no longer could take it as a write-off.

 Did Aladar have any artistic talent? I do not know, but I expect not. He was a brilliant confidence man for sure as  all the best art dealers tend to be. And he was intrepid, no  doubt about that. I can’t quite  remember the story about his adventure for Robert Lepper’s class “The Oakland Project”  that had something to do with Aladar spending a fortnight locked up in a slaughterhouse videotaping it. I’m sure  I  don’t have the details correct, but you get the idea. Here  was a person who would stop at nothing. Not someone you  would want to have as an enemy!

 Barbara and I had been writing to each other for several  months before she came over. I don’t recall who initiated  our correspondence. Most likely she assumed I was doing very  well. In reality I was  barely holding on. I was winding down  the last images from what was already a very productive period that was loosing momentum. It had reached its conclusion- a lyrical abstraction just beyond  surrealism. As a journeyman I had used up the occasion. It was becoming a dead end, but at that moment I could not face that it was  time to leave. 

 Barbara, once in Paris, would soon understand and begin to  plan accordingly. It was supposed to be a love affair  negotiated long distance like a mail order bride on her way to an exotic beginning. That it  collapsed at first instant at the Luxembourg airport I blame on an ethereal memory that had fooled me. The refusal in my eyes echoed back hurt. I tried to cover but too late. Fortunately, we both took a  long sad breath, decided to find an accommodation, remain  friends and pretend.

 And we did pretend because it was Paris, we talked about  art, and my friends there petted and crooned over her, and  with Jim Morrissey we went down to Sache to the Calder’s  watermill, and she  settled down as my student.

 What I could grasp from her work that she showed me was that  of a diffused consciousness that could only play with unfocused sensuality. I set a structure for her. It was  built on the synergy of pairings in  opposition and contrast  and in cooperative fusion. Duel images following the  complementary pattern of male/female, yin/yang, dark/light, good/evil that was based on old Douglas Pickering’s class  focusing  on the complementary palette.

 She worked on gouache on paper spread over my studio floor. She applied layers of color that got scraped. She followed  my lead, and by the time she returned to New York she had the beginnings of a  direction that she could call her own. Going in the direction of sculpture her best work remained within the pattern established in Paris.

 When I finally saw Bill Jensen’s paintings hung at Fischbach Gallery, I realized completely for the first  time that she  could not see. She had thought Bill’s and my paintings had  strong similarities. To me his works were superficially empty frosting on a two dimensional cake. Nothing to do with my cryptic  structures whose almost-abstraction had a long figurative lineage.

 What I most suspect about Barbara was that she was an empty container. Unlike her friend Aladar, she was neither good nor evil, but rather more like an amoeba needing a warm pool of decaying  matter to become herself. That’s why she got along so brilliantly with the wounded souls who traversed  the art world. She actually admired them- those women like Elaine who were a little older than her  mother, but who had  persevered no matter how many knocks came their way, (or how  many abortions Bill de Kooning demanded). Somehow these women survived, and to Barbara they were glamorous in their courage.

 Barbara made it clear that she had already lost precious  time in Paris. Her opportunities in New York offered far  greater rewards. She made plans to leave towards the end of November, but not before  she modeled as Potiphar’s wife in  “Joseph Accused”.  That vindictive role she would realize by  her actions towards me once I returned. She would tell dealers that I was difficult, and so I was cast aside.  I  became the outsider.

 But that aside, I owe Barbara’s bringing to le Cite des Arts  a copy of Thomas Mann’s “Joseph and His Brethren”. I owe the idea of that story to her, and I’m eternally grateful.

 Still, I can’t but be amazed how fate plays little amusing  tricks like this one- that literature becomes image that becomes reality that becomes literature, and that mean deeds and spitefulness return upon  the sender. I find it all  rewarding this turn-about. How glamour turns a little sour. How the pit becomes a throne. How vengeance becomes  unnecessary; that we all get what we deserve eventually.

 But I do wonder why Bill Jensen didn’t see his mistake  before he married Barbara. I guess he was happy to believe all that gushing hero worship that was her stock in trade. Didn’t he know it was trade . Perhaps I’ve given him too much  credit. Here he was a young artist already showing at the magestic Fischback Gallery on West 57th Street. How much money did that really bring in? Not enough for I   had heard that Barbara expected Bill to go out and do  carpentry to support them. Barbara after all was best friend  to his dealer and protégé of Elaine de Kooning. Bill Jensen was cementing his professional  position- formalizing these  alliances. But I knew he was lying to himself, and time proved it to be the case quicker than saying: “Get me out of here.”

I  hardly ever crossed paths or spoke to Barbara once they married. In 1976 I visited her small loft on Prince Street. She had been divorced for several years. Their marriage vows ended very quickly  unlike the history of her parents’ marriage. When her mother lost a son in miscarriage and lost it all, her father stayed the course. Their portrait is a  testament to the endurance of his vows.

 

 

 

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 The portrait in grattage of Jake and Esther Schwartz is almost photographic yet seemingly transmitted as if by a weak signal. It’s a picture of ghosts. One can’t be sure whether they want to be there, as  they were caught not by  their own doing. They seem almost to recede back through the  atmosphere from which they came. They are as they were in real life reluctantly uncertain.

I  suppose they found these two or three portrait sessions a curious intrusion in meeting this gangling fellow whom their  daughter visited in Paris. Could they have had any  expectations concerning the  work itself- I doubt, for what I did was not common. Did they resent me more than like me?  Maybe but we all promised to do it, orchestrated by Barbara  comfortably absent, so her parents made an  effort to be cordial to this stranger in their midst.

 

Philip Pearlstein 

I  would love this double portrait placed along side a Philip  Pearlstein of the same period. Mine is not a painting he  would admire. He insisted on stamping every corner of the dance, grounding it in routine.  Philip likes assurances, no  flights of fantasy- the certainty of every note sung, every bar duly phrased. God forbid a breath linger beyond its  appointed stop.

 Nor did Philip admit my ghosts. He guarded his rigid corpses  from the spirits of the twilight. In his laboratory they are  waxed and rouged under rows of fluorescent. He brushes their  hair down. No air  threatens disorder. His goal is that of  the undertaker; his effigies set in stone.

 Philip had chided me for my lack of rigor- the weakness of  my uncommitted line- my unwillingness to put it down hard and definitive. He abhorred my ambiguity that left one in  doubt. For Philip it indicated  lack of resolve, and worse-  an attraction to mystery. Philip would have no truck with such.

 

 Then again, Philip was strategic. He was not going to let me  at his flank. He knew enough to squash potential challenges before they became a threat. His doggedness was not  endearing. Perhaps that is  why Andy dumped him. If Philip couldn’t control you, he couldn’t flow with the new you, with you that left him behind. Philip becomes a weight.

 Early on Philip made the determination that to succeed one  makes hard, fast choices. He built his career as undeniably an edifice as the staunchly unsympathetic figures he paints. Though his early nude  couples are painted with a lively  staccato brushwork, he soon abandoned any playful sensuality. From then on he staked his grim territory on the  firmest ground. That steadfastness became obduracy, and  Philip’s work became as stern a caricature as the man  himself.

 For Philip allowed no nuance. To him it meant failure of  nerve. One chose a target and only aimed at that. But in this resolute manner Philip didn’t just hit his mark, he went so far beyond his mission that  he arrived at the  grotesque. And in doing so he made a complete circle back to  the distorted expressionism that he so detested. He had  imagined that his objectifying the nude would return our   view of the human body to psychological neutrality.

 But can that be. Can we really see an arm as just an arm or see a hand as just a hand. Even when dissected from a cadaver, the hand reeks with joys and sorrows untold. The  body cannot be  separated from the potency of its spirit. And  frankly, nothing alive or dead in nature can be seen  stripped of its spiritual value. That’s where Philip is so deadly wrong.

 It’s not that I disrespect Philip’s strengths. It’s just  that I feel, as he feels about me, that he is misguided. He  pushes artistic conventions to extreme theoretical  positions. Look how he takes Degas’  cropped snapshot compositions beyond their sense of encounter where figures are framed as if by accident by the boundaries of the  picture to an entirely different place.

 For Philip’s setups are static. Neither Philip, his intended  viewer, nor his models are in motion. Unlike Degas’ positioning the viewer as an active, reciprocating player in these engagements, Philip arbitrarily  crops to wide-angle  distortions of foreheads chopped off at the picture’s edge. Here Philip subverts Degas’ intention, making it into just  another late modernist fetish- one that takes no account of the  human condition.

I  suppose he sees that as irrelevant. But in using living models indifferently from their spiritual being, Philip arrives at a very perverted image. It’s not that he doesn’t  have a wry sense of humor. It’s that he  has to prove his point. There can be for him no subtle intimations. His models are automatons used to address artistic practice. His is art about art.

 If, in an about-face, one surprised oneself in seeing Philip’s paintings as cautionary tales about human disassociation, one might be intrigued. But I don’t believe  that is his project. Instead I see only this  deliberate solution, conceptually predetermined like shaving lines of heads by rote. It’s a good business burying the dead.

 For all his cunning and ironic intelligence, Philip has no  talent for the psychic undercurrent. How then can he grant an inner life to my subjects, that each breath might suggest indecision on their part. Philip  blamed it on my lack of  commitment. It is much more the complex lives that I attempt  to represent.

In the portrait of Jake and Esther Schwartz this was played in  spades. Both individuals are faces of enormous presence and  power. Jake had the air of a bigger than life, aging cowboy movie star. That is  not my invention. Barbara had said that  in Europe people had approached him at cafes asking for an  autograph. Maybe that is how he wished to be seen.

I  kept that in mind as I worked on the portrait. But I was a  challenge to his own image of himself, to  the way he wanted  to compose himself. His is a subtle internal dialogue of  natural generosity attacked  by doubt- a mixture of largesse  based on the advantage of physical stature, but not real  friendliness, and all colored by a weariness as he sat under the scrutiny of the boy artist and former lover of his  daughter whom she had said had genius.

 Where was the genius of this high school carpentry teacher  who under necessity settled for a modest comfort and steady role as parent to his only child. He denied ever having  dreamt of greater  adventures. He insisted on it not making sense.

My presence had temporarily unsettled his private compromise, as had Barbara’s unimagined embrace into the court of Elaine de Kooning. That was, back in 1971, the stuff of legends. It was glamour all  the more unsettling to this attractive man resigned to live a half-life guarding his medicated wife. To me she was barely going through the motions, an apparition  despite the burden of her dragged about body.  She submitted  duly to sitting for her portrait while Jake humored her as  if she were retarded. If there was a glimmer in her eyes it admitted to no real understanding as to why I was doing  their portrait.

 One can understand Jake Schwartz’s struggle under my gaze.  One can also understand in retrospect Barbara’s response to  the portrait when I surprised her by bringing it up to New  York. She  begrudged its presence invading her world; its specter made concrete. She immediately had it removed back to Philadelphia. Her own sense of glamour found it too threatening, too insistent a forewarning  that her own delight in herself might face reversals.

So in the autumn of 1971 when I left it for her at my former  sister-in-law Regina’s apartment in the west village, she  complained to Regina of how I had caused her unnecessary  difficulties.

I  had stretched it there overlooking the playground at Sixth  Avenue by Houston. We put it on a wall in Regina’s tiny flat and immediately fell under its evocative spell. Regina could not understand why I felt  obliged to hand over the painting  to someone with whom I no longer had a reciprocal friendship. I knew she was right. But I had given my word.

 Back in Philadelphia, Jake would make an elaborate wooden frame for it, but Barbara was not thankful. I had given her  what she was running from, and naively that was what she had  requested. She  got far more than what she envisioned. I suppose most people do who get a Rappaport.

So you may ask where do I place these two faces on my imaginary chessboard. Must I not be ambivalent to any reminder of this double portrait duly surrendered in exchange for closed-door  reprisals? And I would have to say yes. Its angry reception  and return to Philadelphia was very sobering. Its  disappearance from the cozy scene circling Elaine de Kooning  and Fischback Gallery  made evident that I was not wanted.

It was probably my greatest double portrait- perhaps one of the great ones of the century, and its presence was nullified.  It was not just Barbara’s petulant disregard. I was to learn  how much I was  disliked by the little group newly empowered.

 That was especially so of Aladar whose facile graciousness  couldn’t quite cover the malevolence in his  eyes. His  antagonism went beyond any reasonable explanation.  And as I  sensed that, it brought out in me silliness towards his pretensions. I knew I had nothing to lose. I would walk into Fischback and  exclaim how incredible it was and how elegant  his suits were. And in my eyes he could see that I wouldn’t exchange places with him. I was still an artist. His charming smiles didn’t disguise his  annoyance. He wasn’t buying it. I wasn’t selling it.

A  pattern had taken form, first in Paris with Darthea Speyer’s  rebukes, and then this hostility from what should have been  my core group. If at the beginning I was shy, soon it became  clear that I  wouldn’t play the game. It was repellant to me.  Darthea’s prediction had become realty. I would have a hard time in the art world. That was thirty-five years ago. Aladar has been dead for decades, and the  hook has pulled  many a player off the stage. I am still at it.

 The early seventies was a chilling period. Living through such episodes where I brought astounding works to the very  doors held wide open to others and denied me was not easy.  It has taken a long  time to disengage myself from such disappointment. Now when I reflect on it, I view contentedly the chagrin of those who believed the tastemakers of the day. They had solicited a bargain. It was all  guaranteed.  But time scuttled our plans. It is not what we thought it was.

I  understand Jake Schwartz’s questioning the wisdom of chasing  after fame. My father also had tried to convey the  foolishness of that gambit. Could one not be more content! I  guess not. We were all  made fools by the urgency that accompanied our actions. I view the illusionary heights from which my detractors had mocked me. I have had time to consider its meaning. I’m sure that they would not be  amused by my constructing a little morality play where they are cast in the roles that they had chosen. It’s no more than a  small melodrama. Only the paintings matter.

 

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                                                          Joseph and Potiphar

 

 Lately I have pulled from my archives old photographs of Jim  Morrissey and myself- not photos from  real life, but in a  painting. For thirty-five years we have been linked as  Potiphar and Joseph in the same painting where Barbara Schwartz joins us as the accusing wife. But in this instance I am only speaking  of the cropped photographic detail of the  two of us.

 Potiphar has been transformed through the window cut from a second canvas making a canopy over the first. There Jim and I are staged opposite the other, separated and silhouetted by the pale blue  canopy. He becomes “the Sphinx”, a metamorphosis by the addition of this material sarcophagus.  Potiphar’s wife is completely hidden with only the lower part of her bust and the throne exposed to  become the hindquarters of the Sphinx. The two remaining players of this drama float in a becalmed shimmering desert of pale  blue sky.

 But even as a dreamscape, the whole canopy allows for too much vacant area (the result of needing to cover the entire first canvas). Thus the detailed photos eliminate the need to do drastic surgery  affecting the lower canvas. Not a  valid option. For I think the closely cropped photos tighten  the abstract dynamics, bringing the actors into closer intimacy, and in so doing intensify the psychological   exchange in this trial of temptation and betrayal.

A  similarly isolated moment brings to my mind Rembrandt’s “David and Saul”. In both cases the protagonists await a decisive action. Their uncertainty held in check by  indecision. Now that the actual  canopy has been lost, we can forget that problem and focus on the cropped image of these  displaced partners. The two men, each with just one eye  showing, present themselves differently. Joseph looks  out  questioning the viewer, while the Sphinx looks at him as if waiting for a response. Each hides partially behind the head  armor shaped by the cutout windows flowing around their shoulders, their  chests and arms exposed.


  


Curling at its edges, the canopy lies uneven above the other canvas. When lit in one direction, real shadows fall on the  drawn figures below, casting a hallucinatory spell as it  crosses the boundaries  between reality and illusion. It’s hard to get a handle on who is the dominant player, who is the oracle, who is the supplicant. It becomes a standoff with the air between them tense with the expectation of   questions unanswered, satisfactions delayed.

 For me the iconic presence of Joseph and the Sphinx remains a snapshot where two friends meet in a fixed eternity. These  portraits had existed in my mind’s eye ever since I left  Paris in 1971. My mental  image of my friend was frozen in these photographic time capsules never discredited by our  advancing lives. Jim didn’t age in my mind for we had lost contact.

 Our friendship had lay dormant for a good part of our lives,  only to live on as a recreation in this painting. Here the distance of decades has made the memories of our friendship  fuse into the identities  that we had modeled. Like relics of  a sacred past, these iconic fragments enshrined those memories.

 And it was a sacred past. To be in Paris as a young man, and  an artist to boot, funded by a grant, and churning out a steady stream of paintings, was an unbelievable epic in  one’s life. And all the while, for  three years, Jim photographed paintings as they came into being. He was always willing, and in so doing documented the great adventure of my life.

 His presence was an incalculable gift as all true friendships are. He was one of the few guardian angels of my  life who kept me grounded as I struggled with the demons. One knows when one is blessed.

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