Portraits & Passages

Chapter 9

Si Newhouse & Angel Passing Bye 50

They grace things without possessing them. Benefiting but asking for nothing back. Giving themselves without seeking control. The essence of the original intention.  -  Tao

Dinner with Si and Victoria Newhouse

Roy Cohn, Joseph Papp, and The Public Theatre Hangings

 Winter 1974

Pam had very early on got her father to agree to my hanging a large red abstraction in her bedroom on the forth floor. Across the room hung two Alexander Lieberman  paintings - bland circles. Of course "Alex", whom I never met at the house, ran Conde Nast. So we were both there as token gestures. Back on Park Avenue, her  mother suggested enthusiastically that, "Si might buy it for lots of money."at never happened, but that the painting hung there at all turned out to be a blessing. About a year before Pam's grandmother gave Joe Papp a million dollars  to fund the Mitzie Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center. As it turned out, Joe had plans that needed the support of City Hall. So there was one dinner at the house  that was really a strategic planning session that included at one of the two round heavy polished granite tables Si and his parents, Joe, and Roy Cohn, the infamous  lieutenant to Joseph McCarthy and old friend of Si's. In reality I was just a fly on the wall, but I was included at the other table with Pam and Victoria, and to my  right Gail Merryfield, Joe's eyes to new talent. She asked me what I did. I said I painted and had a painting hanging upstairs. Without seeing it, she suggested the  possibility of hanging two paintings in the inner lobby of The Public. Victoria, Pam and I stayed downstairs when everyone else took a tour through the house.

We were seated while Roy, standing in front of a twenty foot wide Morris Louis "Unfurl" grimaced as he removed the ashtray holding Joe's huge cigar out of his  way simultaneously suggesting: "Someone should hide grandma's checkbook." There wasn't much space between our seats so he was right above us with the  large expanse of the mostly white painting as his stage. Roy, in top form, proceeded to narrate the success that day of his court appearance. Admiring his  elegant delivery and panache, I stepped into the viper's nest commenting cheerfully: "Roy, you're an actor!" Instantly snarling he stood above me with grasping hands  ready to claw and strangle: "What do you mean..." Then shaking himself as he remembered where he was, Roy backed off while I stuttered something about  having many friends in the theatre and only seeing that similarity. Everyone took a deep breath as Victoria covered with some pleasantry.

Jacob In Mourning, 1971

For three years from the fall of '74 to the fall of '77. "Joseph in the Pit" and "Jacob in Mourning" hung at the Public Theatre. Funny but I don't believe I gave it a  thought that one of the painting's had Joe's name.


But before that happened there were two occasions soon after that memorable dinner that left their mark on me. The first was from out of left field when at a family  dinner unattended by other guests, Si made a remark directly to me from across the table in which he spoke of how some people in "Society" whom he knew and  because of their influence on some galleries, sponsored their protégées for exhibitions. He continued that they almost always never last beyond a season or  two. He was pointedly addressing me not to expect any mistake like that from him.

 If it were now, I would have simply said to Si: “Give me the chance. You might be surprised!” But I was still so shy in those kind of situations. Then again, imagine if  Si would have invited me to go along with him on his Saturday rounds of the galleries with no other promise than a casual introduction to the dealers who you  know would be running to greet him. If he would have said: “Stick with me and relax.” That’s all he would have had to do. But he didn’t.

I remained an outsider, and the development of my painting went invisible. I wasn’t even on the screen. It was like I was without papers – a displaced person. I didn’t exist!

Then a few weeks later he had me come up to where my painting hung to have a little talk. He acknowledged that the painting was powerful. However, he was  uncomfortable with the knowledge that an abstract painting began with an anthropomorphic motif. It seemed irreconcilable to him.

By chance I had brought along a photographic detail of the first state of "Joseph Accused" which was the mate to the other two paintings that would hang at The  Public Theatre. Clearly Si was impressed for his eyes opened wide in surprise, and his head actually jutted forward with mouth open. He said that direction showed  much more promise than following the beaten path of abstract expressionism.

The photographic detail was of me as Joseph in very strong chiaroscuro of cadmium red from which the light figure emerges through the grattage erasure. My  arms are straight down in front of me with the palms of the hands opened in a sign of innocence and supplication – the image of the consciousness of being an outsider in an unfriendly world.

Twenty years later, during the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of France that coincided with my own fiftieth birthday, I would once again paint myself as the Jew  on the tightrope in “The Performer” as a counterpoint to the “German Girl” paintings done simultaneously.

But back in 1974 Si Newhouse was surprised with “Joseph Accused.” The look of astonishment said it all. We are not talking about potential; a great painting had  been achieved. Yet, Si Newhouse made no move to help the author of that painting.

Herbert Simon would remark to me that the man in power will not risk using it except for the most important occasions. For if he should fail to meet his target, his prestige would be threatened.

I had seen how Si disavowed his own eyes and wash his hands of me. And I said to myself: “Here’s a man who does not trust himself!” On coming back downstairs  to the main salon and looking around at the paintings I saw how hollow this pretentious display really was. I didn’t want to visit there anymore. I would tell Pam that later when we left the house.

I remember Si once giving Pam a lecture on not being too generous with her "protégées" after she had given a $400 music box to Richard Magpion. Obviously,  generosity was something to be guarded. It had become too emotionally exhausting for the artist in me to be confronted with such spiritual disregard. One cannot be  surrounded by people who do not believe in one's worth. It's a poisonous situation. A week later I sent Si and Victoria a note thanking them for hanging my painting,  but I thought it time to take the painting back as they might need their wall space.



Jacob in Mouning, 3 Details

Joseph In The Pit (detail), 1971

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