Beginnings & Endings

Chapter 8


                                                                               

Robert Lepper full horizontal sketch

Robert Lepper

When Andy Warhol took the means of production along with the  tabloid photography of mass media into the service of art, it was already inevitable, a  logical evolution. That Robert Lepper at Carnegie Tech fostered dialogues addressing contemporary technology’s role as the unique means of   communication and expression in which the artist of today  finds himself, he undoubtedly seeded the intellectual  environment from which Warhol sprang.

I have fond memories of Lepper, whenever we had not seen each other for a while, addressing me as: “Richard, you handsome  devil!” So it was unusual that we  would not meet on my homecomings to Pittsburgh with Lepper becoming increasingly frail with age and devastated by emphysema.

 Lepper was already close to retirement age when in the  summer of 1964, prior to taking his class that autumn of our  junior year, we formally were introduced by my  new friend and classmate John Lilly as I crossed their path outside the College of Fine Arts. Even then Lepper was gray and wizened,  but his eyes were shinning  with amusement and giving a  little chuckle, threw back his head as if nodding to himself  as we shook hands.

Of course we both knew each other by sight, our introduction  coming on the heels of my tumultuous year of triumphant  acclaim within the art department that then  flipped into skirmishing and threats in silent pitched battles of nerves  from a Douglas Pickering, angered when I stopped going to his class to paint “The Burial of Christ” on my own.

It became odious when advancing towards each other down the long corridor with nowhere to hide and to have Pickering frowning with displeasure and tilting  his face from me as he passed by. It became a regular habit of his. We had crossed  into civil war. There was no turning back.

pickering two horiz
Robert Lepper Hanging copy

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.

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 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!

Robert Lepper vert skect whiter sheet

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