Portraits & Passages

Chapter 8

Detail of Jack Doepp, from Portrait of Jack and Richard, 1972

“A hand shifts our birdcages around. Some are brought closer. Some move apart. Don’t try to reason it out.” - Rumi

               

Pam Newhouse, Autumn 1973

My relationship with the Newhouse family was unpremeditated and straightforward. I became quite by accident, the companion of their only daughter, who being a  high school senior twelve years younger than myself, was at first an embarrassment to me. But she took the lead, and her parents, who were divorced, welcomed me  as a frequent visitor to both homes. I had never heard of them before, or the name Conde Nast. At a dinner that I had been hastily invited I was not told about her. I  didn't imagine her so young given how unusually poised she seemed. So when I asked her for a cab ride she was taking across town, where I would take the  subway downtown, I had no clue what was inside as the driver pulled up to her father's double townhouse.

It was a modern looking concrete building that I thought severe and sterile. On asking her what he did, she said the publisher of “Vogue”. She invited me in, but  said her father and stepmother would be asleep, and we'd have to be very quite. She was delighted to surprise me with the great Rothkos and Barnett Newmans in  the main salon, as I quietly rolled on the carpet in a pantomime of shocked amazement.

I was invited to brunch the next day. I cannot pretend that I was free of ambitions, which was hardly the case, but I was so green and transparent and "uncool" as  Pam would later say, that they were probably relieved except when, as I often did, blunder into an awkward moment. Otherwise, since she was so young that he had  no fear that his daughter would marry beneath her, her father got to enjoy her company along with an escort who could talk about art. I did not, however, always agree with his views.

That I had stepped into his pristine world was for Pam an immensely amusing spectacle. After each small dinner party she would analyze the mutually exclusive  incomprehension and its accompanied chagrin between her father and me. She took delight in my misadventures. It wasn’t that I was a hick, far from that, or I  would never have fit in at all. It’s just that I wasn’t polished or dutifully obedient. I did not acquiesce. Actually, she egged me on. She didn’t have to; although I wasn’t  trying to be disruptive or rude. The two Scorpios just could not see eye to eye.

With her mother, it was easier and more natural. In a way I felt the comfort of  being a member of the family even if it was just a borrowed family, for life was  pretty hard without a stipend from my own family. Remember this was the winter turning 1974. TriBeCa was just emerging, and the East Village art scene was half a  decade away. It was very déclassé to be on the far side of Tompkins Square, but the advantage of being excluded was the freedom to develop on your own. The art  world was hardened into the static hierarchy of its last few avant-garde clubs maintaining their superior positions. The kind of iconic figuration that I had done in  Paris was disallowed, and I was rebuked as reactionary and made unwelcome.

I remember encountering Mel Bochner sitting with a friend at the Spring Street Bar. It was the first time that we met since the winter of 1963 when I used to give him  rides to the print shop at Carnegie Tech. I didn't want to intrude except to say we should have a talk sometime. He responded: “You can say what you have to say,  now," but he didn't invite me to sit down. The tone of his voice said it all. There was no point.

Mel knew he was performing tricks having as much weight as the adhesive holding his numerical tapes to gallery walls. So his charade depended upon his  philosophical pretensions. In another life he might have debated commentaries from the Midrash.

 

Nude, 1963

Nude, 1983

The sensuous experience precedes the definition and meaning of the experience. The body apprehends the world; the mind deciphers it.  -  Michael Rotondi

Now I am not rejecting the conceptual dimension. It is after all a part of the process that precedes the actual execution of an artwork. It takes off from where  the initial inspiration begins – guiding and refining the image. Then on completion, even when “unmarked”, the conceptual “ideal”, like genetic coding, accompanies  the work. It may be invisible optically, but the mind’s eye can see it as a silent force binding the arrangement of the elements in play.

And when the mind can see the transparent conceptual ideal hovering in an ultra-spacial dimension that includes the image itself and the mind of the beholder  simultaneously and reciprocally with the actual gross material of the work, then what we have is a true aesthetic experience.

Joan, 1967

In painting we ride Roman, each foot on different realities that will lead to one strong revelation if the viewer can but keep in tension the reins to each distinct  presence. That tension is the province of painting. We feel it as much as we see it when its subject is jumped into experiential reality within the viewer’s mind when  the armature of the form is simultaneously undermined by the impediment of the material’s abstract presence. That resistance forces our minds out of an easy one -dimensional reading of the literal subject and into a balancing mode where different platforms of perception need to be juggled into a unified vision. The viewer’s brain  has to perform the simultaneous overplay to bring the image into total correspondence. Pleasure in the image is found in that act of symmetry. And that’s conceptual art in the service of a greater whole.

Polish Girl  (2002)

I might add that this is not a post-modern phenomenon only, although de-constructive theory brought it to our general attention. For a methodology that  violated boundaries has always been a tactic used in painting. It can be especially seen in late Rembrandt where his overly built out bodies of portraits exaggerate the  contours that fly outwards to and past the constraints of the picture’s edge.

It is only when the usual forms are violated by slashing at pictorial cliché that something striking reaches our body knowledge. For we observe with our bodies  as well as with our eyes. That is why just a semiotic understanding is such a flat exchange. The body may well be dead, and the denial of our most grounded sensory organ leaves the mind unanchored in the present.

Peggy, Litho 1963

That is why I protested the “cleaning” of the Sistine ceiling in the mid- eighties. The accidents of time and chance had de-constructed the pictorial illusion with a  shadowy residue of dirty overglue that aside from making Michelangelo’s brushstrokes more evident became a cooperating agency of reconstruction that improved the original. The dominant spacial system was made stronger by the  resistance of the accidental counter markings.

The great advantage of painting is its ability to withstand and absorb drastic incursions into the body fabric without a diminishing of integrity to either its  image/illusion or its material vehicle. Early modern art’s dropping the goal of verisimilitude made possible the image and the vehicle becoming reciprocating  extensions of the other. By letting go of the one point perspective of pictorial space, the enduring presence of the painting could then stand its ground in the viewer’s own space.

So I was obviously not in Mel’s camp. In meeting him for the first time in years I had not offered my admiration but instead just said: “It seems you’ve been doing  very well for yourself.” To which he answered: “I’m just doing my thing.” And that unfortunately made it a standoff. From then on you could cut it with a knife. For  when he didn’t ask me to join him or invite me to see him another time I was hurt. I had always looked at Mel as a youngster of five or six years difference looks to a  hero. We had gone to the same elementary school, and when we had connected as equals the year before he left for New York, I had thought there was some kind of friendship between us.

But it was as much my fault as his. As Pam would say, I just wasn’t smooth. I brought out the edge in people. To be fair, I probably was as uptight as he. And in  reflection, I now understand more his position at the time. He was in the public eye walking the tightrope, and people were betting to see when he would fall.

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So it was pretty bizarre to live two distinct lives. They weren't really, but there I was excluded from the party in one scene, and then a regular guest of those at the  top. Although from this distance I can see I was just tolerated, it wasn't always remote. One Sunday we arrived at Si's house just as he was finished napping and  the butler was spreading the wolf fur blanket over the remade bed. Si motioned both of us to sit on either side as he put his arms around us. In front hung a great  Morris Louis "Veil" painting in transparent earth colors.

But there were other times when he was cruel as the time he came to see some of my paintings hanging at a friend's apartment not far from his house. We were there  just for a few minutes when he said impatiently that his father was ill and made it seem as if it were my fault that I was keeping him from seeing his father. Those  were the times when I wanted to chuck it all. The erosion started with that. 

                                  

self rejected 1983 small

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