Over the years I would meet people needing to point out to me the error of my ways. Often they would make pronouncements from no knowledge whatsoever, but you could see them swell with pride. Their verdict was always my failing to uphold the fashion of the moment or a convention from the past. They dismissed my ignorance gleefully.
Some of these incidents revolve around their classifying my portraits as underpainting. They meant it as unfinished and said it in the superior voice of those that accrue knowledge by reading “Time” from cover to cover. They liked to use the word “should”. I’ve found most people who use the word should not followed by the word “consider” know absolutely nothing at all. (That was one of John Bennett’s annoying habits.)
One of the most important lessons that must be learned through experience is that in every act of painting there are moments that can be chosen to stop. Paintings can be pushed from one stage to another- one level of finish to another. The next plateau however does not necessarily mean the better one, and the freshness of direct painting cannot be recovered once smothered by overpainting.
Back in the mid-sixties in the junior/senior painting studios at Tech, Diane Haber had painted a full-length standing self-portrait in sienna and white. I think I was a freshman and she a junior because later she started experimenting with heroin. That would have been the following year when I started to work in the old print room next door. We arrived there to find Diane sitting on the floor sticking a fork into her cheeks.
I had never encountered anything like that, so I did nothing, as Diane was a very powerful personality. But to this day I have grave regrets for not stopping her. But I was just a boy, not yet a man. Sometimes now, whenever I speak to David Byrd, who as I have said before was one of the other great figurative talents at Tech, he brings up his shock and sadness over Diane’s death a year or so ago and her tragic addiction. What a loss it was.
So her great standing self-portrait must have been painted prior to her descent into self-destruction. It remained up on the wall in the studio for a week or more, perhaps longer. Gus Brown remembers it as well. It was like going on a pilgrimage to a shrine. It was totally convincing. Nothing more need be done to it. But then it got destroyed!
One day I arrived upstairs and found Diane trying to finish it. The face was becoming all pasty and flat. All the life and beautiful brushwork lost. For me it was brutally shocking- an event equal to finding her on the floor with a fork at her cheek. It was a horrible lesson of what not to do to a painting.
So when people tell me what I should do, I just keep to myself. When I come across an “unfinished” work whether by Leonardo or Michelangelo, I understand why they never did more. Usually, they are my favorite pieces.
Back in the winter of 1964 when I painted the pieta, I had Diane Haber’s tragic lesson to remember. It completely kept me on tract in seeing what others can’t of fresh, direct rendering in paint. Here we were in 1964 at that nascent moment of conceptual art, and no one could or would understand the beauty of rendering that had all the presence of naturalism while being completely discernable abstractly and conceptually.
Everybody got excited about what they would do with my talent. Nobody wanted to understand that I had my own vision. Pickering’s negative reception became a precursor to that which I would receive throughout my career. It was repeated by the faculty at Brooklyn College a dozen years later. Philip Pearlstein wasn’t the only one there to condemn the uncommitted in my work as he saw it.
In its place I would suggest the words undeclared and unlabelled. For what bothered Pearlstein and company was that I was going against the prevailing attitude of post world war American art and its formal aspirations- the image acting as logo. In other words, the experience reduced to a formula and made instantaneously recognizable.
It is no coincidence that Robert Lepper, the industrial designer, infected Pearlstein with the formal views of his generation that idealized abstract absolutes. That has become the goal of an art market insisting on an instantly verifiable logo. Any hesitation in recognition would suggest a failure of clarity of intention. Forget that what results in art as logo is always pop art.
I would also have to say that Pearstein’s later criticism of the lack of structural complexity in my work was the result of not having paid models and being my own model. Try holding a pose while painting it.
In “The Pieta” and “Six Characters” the compositions consequently flatten across the two-dimensional surface of the canvas, the depth of space made shallow. The result is, an archaic awkwardness not out of keeping with the medieval, almost primitive central figure in “Six Characters in Search” that borrows and ritually perverts the raised arm of the Christ figure from Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment”. Perhaps Pirandello might have approved!