Beginnings & Endings

Chapter 5

The  Self-Portrait as Personal Journal

Perhaps the reason we are so intrigued by the self-portrait is its freedom from mediation. I’m speaking about the self-portrait as personal journal- something to mark one’s place at a certain  time. It speaks directly to us without words. Usually intended for a select circle while awaiting an eventual public, the greatest self-portraits come from the highest respect for candor. The artist  wouldn’t be doing  one if he were not comfortable in his own skin, for a healthy self-regard permits more truth than pretense.

Especially as they are spread over time, self-portraits collectively are often the artist’s strongest paintings as in the examples of Rembrandt and Van Gogh. I had followed  their pattern, and like  their self-portraits, mine also hold a place as ringmaster of my own imaginary chessboard of  faces taking their assigned positions of honor.

The act of portraying oneself is exploratory- a process very  private, meditative, and reflective. The artist comes before  his face with a calm detachment, distanced by the conceptual  overview  needed in its realization. That is what gives the  artist room to maneuver within the zone of accessibility and  uncouples him from his representation.

No matter how truthful the portrait, it remains a guise. The  artist in approaching his face needs to step outside himself while remaining himself as the subject. He straddles the emotional states of  vulnerability and detachment. Leave out  one or the other, and the project cannot succeed.

Without its openness the face becomes only a mask, and  without a rational mind guiding the enterprise, the painting cannot support the image. The more open the face is to the scrutiny of the  viewer, the more need for letting the  abstract passages of the painting process remain evident. That duel agency of emotional content formed by abstract means is what accounts for a fully engaging painting.

 The real act of artistry involved here is the subtle play between elements in the painting’s execution that are in  agreement with the portrayed appearance of the subject and  those elements  that resist complete verisimilitude. It is only with resistance in the act of comprehending the image that the viewer can enter the perceptive mode of witnessing  the act of witnessing.

To be conscious of one’s own consciousness is the empowerment of this meditative act. The resistance to easy intake of appearances does not impede the enjoyment, it just allows  the viewer  to stand beside himself and enter a fully  conscious receptive state.

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That is why there is a difference between nakedness in art as distinguishable from erotica. What is pornographic in  painting is when the intended execution engages excitement  in the viewer to the  extent that it precludes a balanced  consciousness. The viewer is lost to the excitement in his  loins. Therefore, even when a subject implies an erotic component, it cannot enter the realm of arousal and remain art.

Take for instance Rembrandt’s “Bathsheba”. Her privates covered, she is otherwise naked before us as she reads David’s letter. Bathsheba’s face is that of consciousness  itself. Rembrandt  has painted a fully mature woman capable of comprehending her moral dilemma: the consequences of her  dalliance with King David, no matter how legally justified. It’s not that the  painting doesn’t have a degree of  sensuality, (as Rembrandt has painted his own lover in the  role of the queen). It’s that the overriding subject of the painting is her consciousness of righteous  intention, and that sets the mood of how the viewer comprehends her nakedness.

 That then becomes a lesson in remorse as Bathsheba’s face foresees the sin inherent in their original wish that cannot  be totally forgiven or forgotten. Here Rembrandt is not just  speaking  about the letter of the law as some apologists wish  to emphasize, but of the consequences of the spirit of the  law that remain to torment the soul. It is that message that  makes this not an erotic  painting even though it is one of  the most erotic paintings ever painted!

I  bring the issue of eroticism verses nudity to this  discussion in view of my own modeling for allegorical  paintings where I am naked as a representation of martyrdom.  “The Burial of Christ”  and “Six Characters in Search” are journeyman compositions following traditional models.

In 1982 I showed Robert lepper “Six Characters” placed on a spread in the March issue of “Art in America” that he would  use the word “eclectic” to describe. We were going out to lunch as we  always met whenever I was in Pittsburgh. He  continued about it being still a remarkable work for just a boy. I was twenty in 1965 and nineteen when I painted “The Burial of Christ” which I’ve  nicknamed “Pieta”. Both  completely conceived and executed independently of the  faculty at Carnegie Tech.

I  was not immune to the attraction of ceremonial productions  by the Drama Department downstairs at the College of Fine  Arts. But I couldn’t get a fair deal from Douglas Pickering.  In  his view I failed to fully finish the pieta. He barely passed me for sophomore painting because I painted the work without his input. Thank God I did.

 Whatever license Picasso was praised for in his Blue and  Rose periods where he left passages sketchily improvised was denied me. Pickering insisted that I bring the total work up to a higher  level of finish, as did Mel Bochner, who as a  friend at that time, suggested I glaze and over-paint the  faces in a heavy Baroque manner. But that would have made the work academic in the worst way.

 Couldn’t they see that the faces had the sparse execution of  under-painting played against the simple beauty of color washed canvas. Full realism was the farthest thing from my mind. I aimed  for a ceremonial empty stage and the stark honesty of drawing- something evoking the magic of the  summary sketch on the dry absorbent surface of fresco.

A Lesson

 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! 

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These two early iconic works are joined five years later in Paris by “Joseph Accused”, “Jacob in Morning”, and “Joseph  in the Pit”- their nakedness an attribute of vulnerability: the first Joseph of  the Old Testament standing for the Jewish outsider in anti-Semitic Europe.

 The images of Joseph become the prelude to the later female martyred icons that I would make in the mid-nineteen nineties. They are meant to be subversive, for the pleasure  of their nakedness  rides a very enticing edge of discomfort-  the symbolic representation of torture being a very complex  monster. I use that word because the image provokes a two-headed beast in the person  who confronts the paintings’ meaning. These paintings are extremely vulgar and nasty once the viewer understands; the twist being its appeal captures  the beholder long enough for him to realize  the trap: the  aberrant seduction of evil and the complicity of being its  spectator. I’m afraid that attraction is a part of the  species: we are a perverse animal.

The allegorical paintings of the mid-sixties, including  “”The Jewess Accused” (whose original working title, “The  Woman Taken in Adultery”, was changed to incorporate the  idea of  persecution and its excuse), all touch upon the  subject of the victimization of the outsider and represent  my earliest ambitions realized in the grand manner. (In this  pursuit I followed such  examples  as Delacroix’s “Massacre at Chios”). Painting them was a rite of passage. Like  Picasso’s Blue and Rose periods in relation to his later developments, these large paintings hold a  special place of significance that form the backdrop for everything else that I have painted subsequently.

My most abstract paintings were made with the concept that they could be exhibited side by side with these early allegories. What distinguishes them is their residual figurative structure. Instead of  following pointlessly in the goal  already achieved by the Abstract Expressionists, I expanded upon the path that Picasso indicated, (which for the most part was misused by the Surrealists’ cloying  obviousness).   My disadvantage, unlike Picasso, was that the rational,  coherent development of my incremental abstracting of the  figure was not followed from the beginning by an informed  public. For those needing a key to their reading, the later  works seem much more cryptic than they were.

 One would have to have had examples such as the raised  relief decorations on the walls of the Temple of Seti I at  Abydos from ancient Egypt, to understand the inspiration for  carving figurative  forms from layers of paint. Who was there  to understand that I was going back to the very source that then could be traced up to Giotto. Picasso had been pointing back to the well of inspiration,  and I was one of the very  few to grasp it.   

In my works the shallow depth of field with its alternating transitions between positive form and hollow owes its  inspiration to Gothic and pre-renaissance space. The clients  for those altarpieces,  where saints and martyrs occupy  caves, peer out from prison portals, and rest on the open slabs askew sarcophagus, must have relished following the  endless visual progression of forms in spacial  interplay. The ambiguity resulting from contradictions in logical space is the product of intent. Its replacement by the systematic  clarity of Renaissance space is just a difference in  emphasis, not sophistication.

In Paris during the spring of 1969 following on the heels of  the three major iconic pieces: “Father, Vulture, Holy  Butterfly”, “Resurrection”, and “The Escape through the Desert”, I take pre -renaissance spacial ambiguity to its  furthest point of abstraction without leaving its figurative  roots. “Valley of the Kings” marks that moment. It becomes  the prototype for abstract paintings till the  mid-1970s. The resulting forms are like no one else’s.

 Barbara Schwartz’s misleading appraisal that Bill Jensen’s  paintings had something in common with mine was completely off the mark. His work in the early seventies was a  two-dimensional  surface; whereas my almost-abstractions  played hidden homage to Giotto’s great cycles on the life of Christ in Padua and Saint Francis in Assisi.

My Red Scratch Portraits

A  year later in 1970 I would simultaneously return to the figure by taking grattage to a manner mimicking  scratchboard. (I’ve always simply referred to these as my red scratch portraits.) A  progression of grattage portraits  go on for almost a decade beginning with the double portrait  of Mike and Johny Faye Sweet in the spring of that year.

 That autumn and winter turning 1971 in Paris I produce the  “Joseph in Egypt” canvasses; then in Philadelphia that  summer comes the double portrait of Jake and Esther Schwartz  and a portrait of  Joan Greeberg (a close friend of Aladar  Marberger from high school and Carnegie Tech). Then the  portraits abruptly stop with illness and two heart  surgeries.

 With my recuperation, the commission by Jack Doepp followed by Dean Brown’s, bring me to New York in the autumn of 1972.  While working on Dean’s portrait that spring, his friend  Luke  Colasuonno commissions another. These three assignments  begin my New York adventure that get me over the hump, and I  settle into the East Village on East Seventh Street.

 The grattage portraits make a unique period having no equivalent by any artist of the time. I take Renaissance  drawing to a heightened degree of process as the surface  gets scratched away  delicately with the razor blade. As the  decade proceeds the execution becomes more expressive and  violent. Eventually there are over two-dozen major pieces.  All are portraits except for two  individual male torsos.

 The portrait of Luke gets shown along with a Philip Pearlstein painting of his daughter and a Warhol “Mao” in  “New York City/Carnegie Mellon University Alumni” exhibition  in 1976. Luke  lived on the same block of Downing Street as John and Karen Bennett, (whose carriage house would play its part in my story). Luke would become one of my dearest friends. He died  suddenly of a brain aneurysm in his  mid-fifties in 1996.


Dean Brown reappears in 1976 in another commission “Friends”, but it gets refused when I give his face the look  from a French Romanesque Christ. How unsporting when his  family claimed  descent from Charlemagne! The portrait beside  Dean’s also fails to please as I make our friend Dallitt’s  with the imperial look of a Roman Emperor. Such are the dilemmas of pleasing egos. I  can’t tell you how many  portraits I ruined in trying to please friends.

 “The White Sisters” and “The Guru” (Baba Muktananda) take grattage to a presence like tapestry. Although not the very  last, they mark the culmination of the series.

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