Yesterday I cut up and discarded a portrait of Luke that had failed. It was rolled up in front of me as I was writing about how badly I painted the senior Browns. I can’t remember when I painted this portrait of Luke. I think it was sometime in the early eighties in Luke’s kitchen. It caught him at his worst. Ever since his father died Luke had become deflated, strained by life, and becoming burnt out by teaching. He would get worse progressively. However, it captured something of my friend, and I had found it hard to destroy. It’s taken two and a half decades to get around to it. But I feel better now that it’s gone. One shouldn’t leave inferior pieces behind.
When I left New York for good in the summer of 1985 it was first 29 Downing Street where I stopped for rolls of paintings left at the Bennett’s carriage house, and then on to Luke’s at number 13 Downing right by the tiny brick walled children’s playground as Downing touches Bleecker and Sixth Avenue. You can continue south one block to the asphalt playground at the corner by Houston that is overlooked by my former sister-in-law Regina’s tiny flat. This cluster of homesteads represented always a sort of homecoming, a sense of belonging. This triangle of destinations had a place in my heart like few others.
Luke was prepared for my departure with a lunch of noodles, tomatoes, and cheese packed in a large glass soup dish and handed to me on my way out. I would stop after Harrisberg on the turnpike and eat it delightedly. Since then that glass bowl has been the dish I use everyday. It’s been with me now for more than twenty-five years; as has the cream-white mug with the blue “le chien” that my mother assigned to me once I got to Pittsburgh. I do have my everyday treasures. They’re useful, but to anybody else they don’t have much value. Being sentimental should not however get in the way of a larger overview when editing out inferior work, though it’s not always easy.
When I look back in reflection of the portraits done in Washington all those years ago, I feel a profound sense of dissatisfaction. I cannot excuse myself just because of the makeshift arrangements where I painted. What I blame is a failure of ease that inhibited my response.
Why else all those years of practice if one doesn’t trust oneself. There is no misstep when one is with the dance. But I got uptight. I would start to police myself by making judgments based on fear of what the client might think.
Usually I did not know people beforehand, so I had to build upon an exploratory period in the sitting for something to click and I get sight of a vision of that person. Then everything simplified as I entered that stream and using, say Naples Yellow, brushed on a flowing unifying mask. The more I composed myself, the more the sitter also, and in this final phase of mutual harmony we completed our task.
Still, the majority of those portraits done in Washington were primitive. My uncertainties and self-consciousness brought out a correspondence in the sitter. The works were stiff because I was stiff. Only if I got to that last phase did I ease the brush over the face. Only then in those last minutes of a long session did life appear in the portrait. Three hours of hesitant courtship, fifteen minutes of consummation. Voila, a dance!
I had heard Dean Brown’s name years before we met because his was often mentioned with Dallitt Norris, whom my brother Bob and his first wife Regina Ress considered as their best friend. Bob had met Dean and mad Jack Doepp while they were still students in the drama department. It was Jack who got Bob interested in stage design, and as chance would, we both entered The College of Fine Arts in the autumn of 1962, Bob in drama and I in painting.
By then Dean and Jack had left town. For years I would only hear their names spoken. They along with Dallitt, who was still at school, had been regular guests at Regina’s parents’ home, my brother having taken refuge there after my father threw him out of the house. As I was still in high school, I hadn’t been invited to those gatherings. Regina was also at Tech, but had not been accepted in the Drama Department. It was through her involvement with the drama club that Regina met them all.
I could not possibly have conceived that all these people would in time become my supporters and friends in New York City. Nor could I imagine where the connecting tendrils would lead. Never would I have seen myself at the home of Si and Victoria Newhouse, be introduced to Joseph Papp, have my paintings hung at the Public Theatre had not Jack Doepp and Richard Magpion invited Pam Newhouse, their summer stock apprentice, for dinner where we would meet.
Would I have ever have met Charles and Susan Wadsworth, been invited to their inner circle, after-concert parties following the performances of Young Concert Artist of which Susan Wadsworth was the founding director, had Dallitt’s and Regina’s best buddy Ann Dunbar not been Susan’s associate director.
I still have a photo of Charles and Susan taken by Regina at my opening at South Houston Gallery on Prince Street in 1974. Susan is seen in profile, exquisitely classic, just as Charles is caught turning his face suspiciously towards the camera. You can almost hear him say: “Regina!”
If I had been a struggling pianist there would have been no easy access to such people- Charles being the director of the Lincoln Center Chamber Society. He would attend Susan’s concert programs up in the 92nd Street Y’s balcony where he could put up his sore foot. He had gout. I think he was a bit of a devil, you know, charming. He liked women. From him oozed this seductive southern accent and a diabolical come hither look. Of course he took pleasure in the advantage of his rank. He enjoyed the young women doting on him, paying tribute to him as if he were a pasha.
Once I got wind of a disapproving though quietly suppressed look appearing on Ann’s face as if Valekyrie held back from administrating judgment. One just stayed back and let that one dissemble and dissolve. It wasn’t for us to intrude.
Charles and Susan loved Dallitt as a kindred spirit, were on cheek kissing terms with Regina, and because Ann also included me in her personal entourage, I was always welcomed, though I never entirely felt that Susan’s solicitude was ever free of apprehension. I took care never to show her the slightest impertinence, though it didn’t require that I had to be always formal. It was easy. Hers was a world that I was happy to visit. I had no stake in it.
Ann lived in the building two away from where Dallitt and Dean lived on the block of East 10th Street just off the good side of Thompkins Square. I lived on the bad side of East 7th Street, diagonally through the square. So we were all neighbors.
Around 1978 Ann left for L.L. to become the director of Young Musicians Foundation. That ended our regular close connection with the Wadsworths; especially as Dallitt was spending more and more time in Washington, eventually becoming a partner and the artistic director of the theatrical touring company that had hired him freelance. Though he kept his apartment for a few years longer, he would within a short time move permanently to Maryland.
Why on earth did Dean Brown in the beginning move into that tenement had mostly to do with Dallitt’s being there, but let’s not pretend; Dean also was just a little bit cheap. Oh yes, he would protest, pleading all kinds of reasons why he couldn’t afford better arrangements. After all, for the last fifteen years he was still paying off the inheritance tax from his aunt’s holdings in the family’s real estate company, though that was almost or already completed. And Allison was not partial to the idea of the family taking on debt to see her son in a more congenial setting. I heard her say that if Dean wanted better, he would have to go out and work for it. Instead, he stayed on for years and years in that cramped, dark warren, only getting restless once Dallitt finally gave up the East Village for good.
It was not my custom to hang out with Dean the way I might meet Dallitt for lunch. But we were always one friend removed. I would stop by Luke’s, welcomed in as he was on the phone with Dean and speaking into the receiver say: “Here comes Richard, see ya. Dean says hello. What do you want to drink? Wait till I tell you what Jack Doepp has gotten himself into now. Stay for diner, something you’ll like. It’s in the oven.”
Luke was of the salt of the earth with a rakish dash of easy urbane sophistication. He was raised by his grandmother back in Italy while his parents made their move to Brooklyn. I’m sure that’s where this suave, feisty Aries terrier absorbed the benefits of the quieter, slower, more graciously compliant pace to life, and where he learned to cook so well.
And that’s where I come in. Back in the spring of 1973, right after seeing Dean’s portrait, Luke had me do one of him on the installment plan of fifty dollars a month. Still sporting a mustache and sideburns from the sixties, he was in the prime of his life, trim, intelligently alert, touched with an aura of kindness and devilish playfulness, The portrait came out great.
It was soon after, that he began to give Regina and Ann Dunbar Italian lessons, serving them diner afterwards, Once when I stumbled into class, I invited myself to stay, but I’m hopeless with languages. But you know me. Seeing a large, flat pan come out of Luke’s oven with some wonderful pasta dish made me the happiest I had been in ages. The two girlfriends practiced their Italian as Luke brought out some vino. Nobody really minded my intrusion as my recently completed portrait presided over the boisterous squeals and laughter of these good friends.
Regina, divorced from my brother, continued to treat me as family, just as Ann, a tall, stately beauty in her early thirties, reserved and out of reach, had already claimed me as a sort of brother as well. Ragamuffin that I was, my three years painting in Paris and the recent portraits provided me a sympathetic credibility in the eyes of the very practical, no nonsense Ann, whose younger brother was a struggling ceramicist back home in Wyoming. So being younger than her, impoverished and unworldly, I was tacitly directed by this imposing headmistress that this was not an affair as she took possession of me as her artist friend.
I would meet her at the offices of Young Concert Artists prior to going off to lunch. She towered over Susan Wadsworth. Both were exacting perfectionists running in tandem the competition that sponsored and managed the debut concerts of the next generation of classical virtuosos. Ann, the competent Virgo, supervised the operation as if it were her own vicarage, a vestal virgin par excellence; while Susan, whose mother’s upper East Side building housed their offices in the penthouse, reigned as its queen. It astonished Ann that Susan was capable during auditions of precisely spotting missing notes by any unfortunate musician not up to the prescribed playing.
Beyond her presiding over the grueling competition with its exacting program of auditions, Susan used her beauty, her husband Charles’ prestige, and her mother’s support to fund raise amongst those of New York’s elite who loved classical music.
Why I never offered to paint her, in retrospect, was very stupid of me, or then again, maybe it was just as well. But in any case at the time I wasn’t painting by brush and had lost my edge. Still, Susan would have made a sterling, striking image. Strange I do believe that it never occurred to me. What a lost opportunity to paint the porcelain skin, dark haired beauty with the delicate, crisply chiseled features of the classic Jewess- an image right out of “Ivanhoe”.
Except here was no unguarded lamb waiting to be rescued. One look at Susan Wadsworth and you knew not to treat her in any way other than with deference. So perhaps I felt a little intimidated by the lingering specter of danger emanating from her cool looks- a touch of the savage betraying uncertainty, even desperation from the sunken eyes in their bruised orbits, something of the wild animal cornered at bay.
Of course, these two very attractive women making up this partnership were very different. I can’t remember, but if I were to guess, Susan Wadsworth had all the complacent charm of a Leo who almost always got her way . And that almost always rubbed Ann, steadfast, responsible, and somewhat pedantic, to the point of petty annoyance if not self-righteous, Presbyterian indignation. Throw into the mix a Scot’s penchant for penny pinching, and I’m sure just a little outright jealousy, as for instance whenever Susan would go off casually in the afternoon to buy a few linen blouses or a dress without much ado, then coming back to the office saying: “Oh, I got these on sale.”
None-the-less, there was much loyalty and I think affection between them that over-road all these irrelevancies, and theirs was a very successful match as sisters can be manning the front lines.
In recalling what I have summoned of Ann or Susan, I must confess by not being in their world I enjoyed the privileged place of not having to take them too seriously. That for women who make or break careers may have proven to be refreshing. For I just looked at them as charming, sophisticated women.
My coming along on the coattails of an already established group of friends gave Ann little room but to include me. I suppose I was an almost mythic figure as Dallitt and Dean already had paintings of mine, and Regina was inclined to romanticize.
So there I was after three years in Paris to find myself in Ann’s East 10th Street apartment. Worse, I was showering in her just-completed plywood shower- meaning I was literally the first person to shower in it. Ann had been looking forward to it. But my being directed there from the airport on my arrival back from France meant I got to it first. That was negotiated by Regina, with whom I would be staying. I forget the reason to meet at Ann’s. Poor Ann, she tried to be a sport about it, but something inside her felt denied. She laughed about her own reaction, but she was undeniably chagrined.
Her kitchen was still sun drenched in late afternoon. Ann got home moments after I got out and was dressing- a strange man in her home who wasn’t a stranger to her closest friends. I apologized for all my baggage in her kitchen, though I immediately felt the assurance of hers and Regina’s tight bonds.
I was clearly startled through the haze of an exhaustion temporarily relieved by the refreshing shower. For me it was the comfort of a homecoming after the long flight mixed with the thrill of meeting a beautiful woman- a stranger in her strange apartment who was already a long-standing member of my clan.
Regina chattered away happily with the two of us, maybe not entirely oblivious to our both going on silent alert that spelled some accommodation would have to be agreed upon. After all, it was boy meets girl. I tried not to be too obviously taken by surprise, and Ann tried not to be too guarded. She covered better than I did; the exchange required balance. We composed ourselves.
This was a family event. A few deep breaths were taken. I did my best to stop my head from swimming and get my feet on the ground. We had a drink, and I went back into fatigue mode. Ann with hesitation seemed relieved. She chatted agreeably with Regina and smiled at me more easily.
In the cab on the way back to her place, Regina informed me that Ann had her admirers. That was just as well as I had some unfinished business with Barbara Schwartz that occupied me for the next week before my leaving town. When I would return to make New York my home I would be wasted by illness and surgery. I would elicit more concern than apprehension: a solitary returning from the underworld.
That would be a year and a half later when Jack Doepp invites me to stay at his design studio efficiency on West 85th Street while I paint his and Richard Magpion’s portrait. Add another three or four months before I move into my place on East 7th Street that made me neighbors with Ann and Dale and Dean. By then we had found a comfort zone. After all, women like to be admired. So never having had sisters, I found having a number of them was very pleasant, so much more confiding and easy than the stressful about-face of love decoys.