Yet there was much that I owed Pickering. He had got my painting on track. I had taken his lessons on the complementary palette from his summer class to hyper -jump into full independence. He should have blessed me and let me go my way. Instead he made our relationship a caustic melodrama as if he were the bride jilted at the altar. I suppose he had envisioned a greater role for himself. But what was worse than my not needing him was that I stayed away.
The problems began early in the fall semester when I entered a natural period of fatigue and inertia following my first series of portraits done late in the summer. For that independent project I was awarded a one-man exhibition lining one wall of the principal corridor stretching the length of the art department atop the magnificently grand Beaux-Arts building housing the College of Fine Arts.
Although I had certainly been grouped as one of the better talents of the freshman class, the exhibition of portraits was tantamount to an investiture of undisputed rank. From then on I was differed to by my fellow students and in various guises, the faculty as well. Not that people curtsied, though at times it seemed so, but simply put, I was shown unusual respect. Fellow students, leaving aside any show of contentious rivalry, would come up to me to ponder the unique absorbent finish of the paintings; while dashingly handsome, straight, old Russell Twiggs, the rogue, pointed to an area of my nude self-portrait in shadow, asking: “Is it really that big!” That rub was his delighted praise to a comrade over forty years his junior.
Years later when Alice Neel was given belated attention for her portraits, I was astonished by their reception. I had assumed them common painting. My own deeply penetrating portraits painted when I was still eighteen were more than equal to hers. I guess that’s what excited everybody including Pickering.
However, in the autumn of 1963 I needed to recharge and spent most of my time in the print-room. That’s when I did the series of etchings and lithographs of the mummified, skeletal body buried in fetal position that I drew at the Carnegie Museum down the street from campus. I even carried by hand one of the large heavy litho stones to the museum.
Why couldn’t Pickering, impatient as he was for new results, understand I was recouping my spent energies by planting a different crop. It was obvious to everybody that I was constantly working; even more obvious that I chose my own projects. Pickering got in the way. He was dissatisfied at the end of the first semester with only my mother’s portrait. He thought I was backsliding. I thought I had to get him off my back.
In the silence of the attic of my family’s home, away from prying eyes and inhibiting opinions, I began to paint the faces one by one, all self-portraits save the one of Ellie done from a drawing. Under the naked lightbulb in a room hardly bigger than the large canvas, there was no more than four feet to back up. It didn’t matter; I loved the intensity of its immediate presence upon me. I was transported.
It was only the second time since my mother’s portrait a few months earlier that I used linen. It was a beautiful medium weave that Titian would have preferred, and I thought of his manner of letting a face hover around the spacial zone of the threads. Modeling the body was a bit of a contortion, but I managed. As it came together, despite the awkwardness in the pose, its power was illuminating as if from another world, the faces apparitions. I fell under its spell. Whatever the conditions I faced on the outside, from here on I was walking on clouds. I felt anointed. Without realizing it, I was as close to God as I would ever be.
That the painting was a revelation to almost everybody when at the end of the year I hung it in the sophomore painting studio didn’t resolve the disputed behavior on my part. A very sour and belligerent Pickering contended numerous areas of unresolve, contesting my jumping into a full scale painting without proper preparation. He would have me do a semester of small studies before attempting so large a work. Fortunately I didn’t do what he would have advised, or the painting never would have been painted. It would take Pickering years before he cooled down and let the whole business go. Eventually decades later I would paint him twice, in the same series as the two portraits of Herbert Simon and the one of Lepper.
So with this tempest credited to me, the very first sentences Robert Lepper addressed to me in his unique salutatory fashion was: “ Oh yes! I have seen what you do to teachers. Richard, you will not do to me what you did to Douglas Pickering. Promise me that. And remember, the day I get angry with you is the day I treat you as an equal.”
Over the years Lepper would remind me of this admonition whenever he decided I needed an upbraiding. But it would be said in mock reproof for my saucy slapstick impertinences. Our mutual regard left plenty of room for playful comedy.
We never had a problem. I wasn’t contentious for sport, nor did Lepper need to own me, our relationship being more philosophical and measured. For Lepper never pushed his students; he speculated with them over the possibilities of the situation. He was patient that his input might have a delayed impact. Of course he would have been pleased with credit, but he wasn’t pushing for immediate results. He understood the process of gestation, and in that attitude he was kind.
Pickering on the other hand, could not stop being the maniacal drill instructor, who, like an apprentice magician, got hold of the master’s wand and made scrambled eggs of the situation. Lepper was a gentleman. His fits he kept private. I had seen a few, but they were the frustrations of his profession towards his betters. With his students he remained tolerant and bemused. He was sanguine enough for that.
Sadly I see in retrospect that the turbulent and draining episode with Pickering would become a preview of later trials where others with much more ugly intent chose to push and prod me to see me break. They would pretend a carrot, holding instead a whip and bridle. That was something that I wouldn’t allow. But then I had to walk away empty-handed.
John Lilly had already bonded with the feisty old Lepper down in the basement metal shop in the evening hours as crews of dramats built sets in the hallways below the theatre. Immediately recognizing in the other a kindred spirit, they quickly formed a mentor and protégé alliance of mutual admiration and hard drinking. Lepper’s ailing and unsupportive wife left him on his own. So John, as had Mel Bochner before him, became a surrogate son. Lepper needed someone to talk to.
Mel, who graduated several years before, had returned to Pittsburgh our sophomore year to teach in the school system. In the evenings I would drive him to campus where he spent many evening hours in Lepper’s studio exchanging theoretical speculations. He was the old man’s pride and joy, a beloved protégé. With Mel’s move to New York came a filial vacancy that gave room for John Lilly.
Both John and Mel were several inches taller than me, and I’m not short. Both were equally good provocateurs, and both could seduce you into believing you were their friend. That I would know from experience. Lepper, too, would learn many years later that Mel had decided to leave his old mentor safely out of the way. Mel would not diffuse critical attention by acknowledging Lepper’s guiding hand.
Privately, as we all did, he would see his old teacher on his return trips to Pittsburgh. But Mel absolutely refused to be associated with his old school and did not exhibit in the 1976 “New York City/ Carnegie Mellon University Alumni Exhibition” held at West Broadway Gallery where both Warhol and Pearlstein were included.
What was even more transparently disingenuous on Bochner’s part was Lepper’s being singled out in this occasion as the major inspiration to the artists showing. One could only wonder how much there was of Lepper’s influence Mel was trying to hide. Certainly Lepper’s kinetic sculpture “Astrobat” was a source of Bochner’s painted wall installations of the seventies and continued to be a principal motif for his chalk paintings at the end of that decade.
If Bochner had tried to get Lepper critical attention for his theoretical teaching, I don’t believe he tried too hard. It would take Lepper a long time to come to terms with Mel’s letting go. As the decades swam by us, I would get glimpses of Lepper’s hopes confounded, and the stark truth set upon him.
The once irascible old man started fading gray to white, his bitterness devouring him and his withering lungs leaving him barely alive. Fortunately, there remained in Pittsburgh a small circle of former students who rallied him from his gloom. On occasion he could still astound with his rhetorical observations.
Yet even then, one understood that in the medley of artists passing the baton, Lepper was the least fleet of foot: his job to connect the greater runners. So there was something anti-climatic and forlorn about the few scattered pieces of his aluminum and plexiglass sculptures lying about on the tops of furniture in his dingy apartment. They were hopeless time capsules from mid-century modernism with nothing more to offer than a sad reminder of a past idea. His former students Andy, Philip, and Mel had taken those ideas and leaped much further than he could ever go, as did Jonothan Borofsky. What was bitter was to be stranded as time passed you by: the price to be paid for working only for the idea of the moment.
That I became extremely close to Robert Lepper was, as it has turned out to be, an unusual association for an artist born to be a painter, and a figurative painter at that. This friendship lasting twenty-five years was an anomaly for both of us coming from such different persuasions, though I wasn’t the only painter to remain friends with the old fellow.
Unlike John Lilly, I was not interested in kinetic sculpture, prefabricated materials, or abstract mechanical imagery, but as John’s sidekick our junior year, the three of us met constantly outside of class and over lunch discussing ideas.
Lepper was ecumenical in the classroom, addressing analytically diverse options in the pursuit of artistic expression. His second semester class “The Retrospective” , whose primary goal evoking the emotive, psychic power of unrestricted, unedited, unapologetic memory, would become a theoretical landmark for my own evolution in painting, although I never could approach painting just from memory unaided by source material. That was not mandated for Lepper did not treat it as an absolute procedural approach, but as a residual, subconscious, emanating facility that pervaded one’s response to autobiographical material.
Consequently, Lepper stressed continually throughout that semester: “Let the subconscious take the initiative.” That was his evocation for us to summon from our psychic depths our angels or our devils, to let them emerge unadulterated whether beautiful or repellant, but whatever the case, honestly and with conviction.
Lepper’s “Individual and Social Analysis”, the formal name for the “Retrospective” and “The Oakland Project”, was a generating force that influenced the cultural brew at Tech, and from that intellectual climate one can understand a Jonothan Borofsky emerging from “The Retrospective”, in spite of the fact that he didn’t formally take the class, or a Mel Bochner finding focus from the more analytical side to Lepper’s interests in theoretical and procedural indicators.
What Lepper opened up for me was exactly that analytical practice of seeing any set structure of procedures as only one of many possible approaches from which to choose, and none absolute as ends in themselves. Ultimately, that would lead me to radical departures from habitual practice whenever I felt the suffocating numbness of inertia stifling my enthusiasm. Then the voices of discontent would arrive: “the subconscious taking the initiative” with a feeling in my body begging for a freer response to handling tools and materials. This call of the wild would come as an emotive force while simultaneously I scanned my options and the decision to throw the dice in one direction or the other.
This for someone like me who was always quick to judge was a learning curve in not closing down to a new result, as it would sometimes come abruptly; not discarding it; not scraping it out; but letting it tell me something in a new way; to let it become the new chapter that was waiting to be a part of me. One had to allow oneself to be startled and not run for cover; not to reject it for breaking some technical rule, some impropriety that one had as yet not allowed oneself; or fear that the image be too faint, the material too fragile. To all that Lepper would say: “Leave it!”
His whole point being: don’t rush into conclusions that set limitations on expression. Allow the process to tell you. In time you will be able to better judge what is and what isn’t successful. By letting it proceed, it may lead to another threshold that could not have been anticipated before hand.
I can’t tell you how many times I didn’t listen to the voice within telling me to let it be; don’t clean it up and make it presentable. I had works that, like Michelangelo’s unfinished blocks, had more provocative power in them in just being ruffed-out than any finish I would eventually impose on them. I had in my eager wish for a conclusive state disregarded a “happening” by defining it as a preliminary stage towards something more “refined”. And I knew even as I worked on it that I would regret doing so!
None-the-less, for someone who, since kindergarten age dreamt of painting as the old masters, and to a remarkable degree did so by the time I encountered Lepper; I was unusually open to his injunctions of letting the process guide the work. For that matter, I have never met anyone of my generation of artists who had, as I did, followed a traditional apprenticeship from early on, and staking their artistic hopes on that tradition, be as unbiased and as unblocked-in by adherence to overly defined procedural means as I became. And for that bridging of artistic choice, my work would be called any number of pejoratives. “Eclectic” was Lepper’s. “Ambiguous” was Philip Pearlstein’s.
That came from their search for absolutes. For Robert Lepper, like most of the intellectuals of his generation, had a utopian conception of progress that made obsolete the proceeding stages of development, whether that be social and political or artistic. That led them to idealizing innovation even when the new was pie in the sky.
Lepper’s word “eclecticism” describing “Six Characters in Search” was curiously negative owing to his own straddling divisions of artistic genre. Perhaps the deciding difference in his mind was that he was making his “literal” contradictions quirky spoofs; while I was attempting more subtle, poetic assimilations of assertion and dissimilation- my figures surfing great rolling swells of empty space not locked into closed-in rooms, and so without the proofs of the easily demarcated and acceptable standard isometric systems.
Lepper was not dishonest in his advocacy of “Let the subconscious take the initiative”; it was just not within his means. He was too literal and too tightly bound by the mechanical needs of pre-fabricated materials to truly be free of a pre-conceived approach. He was stuck with clichés. But here was the rub. What he allowed himself in his commonplace, surrealistic cartoon shapes, whose cloying triteness was such a disagreeable aspect of modernism, he would condemn as “eclectic” in “Six Characters” the distilled and sparse realism of floating faces whose placements were modified conceptually by the surrounding reference of the barest rendering. Like his former student Philip Pearlstein, Lepper could only accept the obvious, exaggerated shifts of incongruity, the blatant proclamations of discrepancy as if in quotations, but not my more subtle ambiguities of dream worlds and illusions.
It is in this matter of emblems, art as logo, that separates me from Lepper and Pearlstein. Their use of the logo substitutes the act of recognition, an intellectual and analytical process only, for the full engagement of seeing. The device becomes a literal, instantaneously recognizable token of commerce, a known standard of exchange: a “brand’. This is a prosaic, technocratic attitude that has bracketed off from the wholeness of poetic vision signage of the most rudimentary , clinical sort. The message is telegraphed and made verifiable; no need for observation and musing. The symbol is pre-digested; its merits already assigned value. There’s no where to go with it but to acknowledge it “art”- a very cool, cerebral art, cold might be the better word. Both Lepper and Pearlstein have left out the life force as they disengaged parts from the whole.
Pearlstein is simply a mortician; while his former teacher, in the misguided hope of honoring the machine, made his objects useless parodies by their failing to function with purpose. There is nothing in his cabinet of curiosities that registers as convincingly as the real machines and tooled functional objects produced industrially that he emulated. Nothing of his inspired admiration, at least from me, the way an old plough left on the floor of his studio at school did with its convex blade turned concave. Lepper was dead in his tracks. He had taken the heart out of the experience.
He was hand-fabricating emblematic assemblages as tokens for what was stamped, molded, or extruded, and what didn’t need stand-ins. At mid-twentieth century, Robert Lepper’s sculptural logos of the machine age sound more rear-garde than avant-garde. Just next door to the College of Fine Arts, Herbert Simon, at The Graduate School of Industrial Administration, was pioneering the information age.
Conceptually diagramming the recognition and making of choices was already being primitively programmed on campus a decade before Mel Bochner was a student. At least on one occasion that I know of Herbert Simon and Robert Lepper would debate on the subject of artificial intelligence. I had missed that. I would not meet either until afterwards. But I would assume Mel was there or certainly knew of it.
Perhaps Mel Bochner thought that by taking Lepper’s rhetorical program of analytical inquiry to be the subject of his art he avoided his former mentor’s dilemma of redundancy. But in light of Herbert Simon’s work on decision-making we see how superfluous his art really is. His work is like that of children pretending to the activities of grownups.
For Mel’s parodies labeling the disagreement of meaning in the interfaces of communication are games that offer nothing positive beyond the act of deciphering where the discontinuities abut. Their riddles are trivial traps to catch the unwary. I suppose he would like all of us to be rats on circular treadmills. That’s all Bochner gives us. Unlike the refined focus of other conceptual artists, can one say there is any aesthetic component embodied in his presentations, or a spiritual one. Mel Bochner is not Pythagoras. He is just parading his cleverness.
Given that, we must conclude that Mel Bochner is a charlatan. But is he a neo-Dadaist or perhaps a Duchampian revivalist. I would suggest that he is a nihilist, for I have heard from his own mouth his need to challenge and bamboozle those in authority, even when he had been blessed by their benevolence. Mel Bochner not only wants to win, but he wants to win by making fools of people. He has sold them a hoax thereby establishing his identity as the puppet master. He has strung us along, but to what end.
By his example, contemporary art has belittled itself by meandering in the labyrinth of disingenuous cynicism. Mel Bochner has very adroitly manipulated his material, but a cultural critique that scrambles meaning further than the way it found it should not be something to admire.
Bochner has been part of an awakened Babel. His work has not been a solution but a symptom of displaced purpose. He is part of the historical moment of chaos and confusion. But an inquiry that sabotages meaningful communication by declaring what is difficult impossible is an act of futility.
The core of art should be something more than a linguistic picture puzzle of intertextual collisions. It is a hollow victory to debunk both language and art to where neither functions except as specimens, and in so doing, has led a host of devotees into a purgatory of critical discourse with no end.
After all, weren’t people always ambivalent towards the ideals and dictates of their culture long before the modern era. Were not their reflections on what is significant couched in ambiguity by the fluidity of language. Certainly language is a flawed instrument if what one desires is a static truth locked into a rigid system.
But in the fertile diversity of readings there is room for discovering meaningful communication. Human beings comprehend poetically, not absolutely. We teach by inspiration, not by hammering. The very nature of reality is in constant flux and uncertainty. If we have issues to address, we must do our best to express them; for as imperfect as art and language are, they are our means of sharing our most serious human concerns. We need only do that in good faith.
In this Mel Bochner pulled the wool over his own eyes by his own admission. In reminiscing in an article in the September 2006 issue of “Artforum” about his collaboration with Robert Smithson on their publication of “The Domain of the Great Bear” in “Art Voice” in the Fall of 1966, an inconsequential piece in itself, Mel seems still blind to the fact that he missed the point.
While he and Smithson, both “wise guys”, to use Bochner’s own words, were performing a subversive game to gain access to the archives of the Hayden Planetarium and a connived spot in an art magazine for an article of dubious value; the Viet Nam War was escalating into the North. At that very moment in the summer of 1966, when they were planning this theoretical usurpation within the small prerogatives and interests of the art world, the United States sent its bombers over the boarder into North Viet Nam. Where the hell were they! In what hole did they have their heads!