The Big Night: Art Opening in New York

supreme chicken                                                        Supreme Chicken, Oil/Canvas, 1987

In the late eighties I showed my paintings and drawings in a little gallery in Wilmington, Delaware.  Susan Isaacs was the owner and dealer.  She was sophisticated and catholic in her taste and willing to take chances on new artists.  She called in a dealer from New York to jury a show at her gallery, and Joseph swooped in and raided her files.  He picked out several of Susan’s artists as potential exhibitors in his gallery in a dodgy part of the East Village.  When I received a summons to show him my work I talked to Susan about it.  She diplomatically reported that Joseph never lied, but often didn’t tell the whole truth.  I decided to take a chance anyway, and told myself that Susan was probably worried that Joseph might clean out her stable of artists.

A friend drove me and a box of paintings to New York.  When we passed Cooper Union I saw a group of homeless men spreading rags on the sidewalk at an intersection near our destination.  I asked Jim what was going on, and he explained that the rag men were selling their rags to other rag men.

Joseph buzzed us into his gallery and lined my paintings up against a wall.  He trained color adjusted spotlights onto them, and they looked good even to me.  I felt like a professional.  Joseph made a few positive noises and seemed to be heading in the direction of offering a one man show.  Then he reined in his enthusiasm and said, “I’d like to put you in a try out show first, a group show with a few more artists.”  He put a finger alongside his cheek as he searched for an appropriate title and said, “I think that I’ll call it…Representations.”  I left feeling both disappointed and hopeful.  A show in New York in any form might open the door to an actual career as a painter.

A few months later I received another call from Joseph summoning me to New York.  I brought along another box of small paintings and met with him in his new location in SOHO.  This gallery was much larger, was sleek and airy with broad white walls and a huge window looking out on a sweeping view of Manhattan.  The old place had been a grubby hole in the wall in a marginal neighborhood.  Joseph made a selection of work for the show and picked only the most traditional still lives in the group.  I began to suspect that he saw me only as a conservative painter of kitschy Americana and didn’t understand my subversive intent.  That was the first alarm bell.  The second was his announcement that I would have to pitch in $500 to help cover the cost of the show postcard and the refreshments at the opening.  I felt that I had come too far to back out at that point and agreed to write him a check.

In early December my wife and I drove to her parents’ home in eastern Pennsylvania and dropped off our one year old daughter.  Judy and I took a bus to the Port Authority in New York on the night of the opening reception for “Representations”.  We found the bus station in its usual state of disarray with dirty, trash strewn floors, graffiti sprayed walls, beleaguered and angry guards, and the typical New York mix of both respectable and extreme characters.  I had to pee and got in line for a urinal at the nearest men’s room.  I could hear someone mumbling and cursing behind me.  When I got my turn and opened my fly the voice became distinct and disturbingly close to my ear.  It growled, “What are you doing what’s taking so long quit jerking off buddy hurry up!”My wife took one look at me when I exited the rest room and asked, “What happened?”  I was too angry and embarrassed to explain and said, “I couldn’t go.”

We were running a little late and scurried out the door and into a subway station at 7th Avenue.  We asked for directions and found our platform.  While we waited a tall, well-groomed man in a elegant coat walked by with a wooden box.  He stopped ten feet away from us, stood on the box and began to deliver an incoherent sermon.  I didn’t worry too much about the raving preacher until I noticed that the folks around us had begun to back away from him.

Our train arrived and we made our escape.  I could tell that we were headed south, but the line curved in a serpentine fashion and I had no idea where we were really going.  We need to head southeast to SOHO.  When we got back on the street we were both disoriented.  I happened to look down a long avenue and saw the twin towers.  I realized that we were a mile too far to the west of our destination.  As we walked along Houston Street in the darkening winter gloom I felt overwhelmed once again by the size and intimidating aura of New York.  I was an ant in a gigantic anthill.

We passed by a church and saw a man standing by a lighted outdoor creche.  He had no coat on but didn’t seem to notice the cold.  His body was as rigid as a statue.  He stared and pointed at something that horrified him, something that was invisible to us.  As we hurried on I felt guilty for not stopping to try to help him.  I was afraid of what he might do if he suddenly came to life.

We came to within a few blocks of the gallery and stopped at a Blimpie sandwich shop to get our supper.  Judy and I finally got a chance to catch our breath and for me to relieve my  bladder.  We walked into the reception feeling a bit more confident, but our hope faded as we toured the show.

My paintings and the artwork of four other artists in “Representations” had not been given an opening devoted to our work as expected.  Instead we were a sideshow in a small area near the rear of the gallery.  The main event was the reception for an installation of large metal sculptures of horses done in the manner of Deborah Butterfield.  Joseph and his staff appeared to have developed cases of situational deafness and blindness.  They were unable to see or hear me when I came to say hello, but were able to respond to potential buyers of the life size mechanical horses.  Judy and I drifted over to the area where my paintings hung on a wall.  We tried to blend in and look casual.  The only ones looking at “Representations” were the artists and their families.  Judy encouraged me to strike up a conversation with my fellow victims, and I got into a few abortive discussions.  One young man who did Picasso-esque drawings of still lives and cityscapes asked me where I was from.  He was originally from Rhode Island but had a studio in The City.  When I told him, “Pennsylvania,” he rubbed his chin and looked up at the ceiling as if trying to recall a vague memory.  He said, “Pennsylvania.  I’ve heard of that…”

My bladder beckoned once again–visits to New York always seemed to stimulate renal productivity–and when I returned I saw a pack of wolfish young men closing in on my wife.  She had worn a slinky black dress, held a wine glass in her hand, and stared thoughtfully at a painting.  She looked brainy and gorgeous.  I rushed up to her, took her hand and reclaimed my exclusive rights.  She had noticed the attention and was amused.   Her wine glass was filled with water, not white wine, and she was a research scientist and mother, not a bored socialite or an art groupie looking for action.

As the reception went on I began to sink into a depression, but Jim and his wife Sally showed up unexpectedly.  Sally introduced me to an artist from Delaware, and we had a long and somewhat comforting discussion about art world economics.  Jim and Sally ushered us out of the gallery long before the reception ended.  I had no desire to hang back:  I had long since realized that my $500 check had been used to pay for the horse sculpture opening and that my presence was not required or desired.  The four of us drove in Jim’s car to a restaurant in midtown Manhattan and ate a meal together.

I was immensely grateful that Jim and Sally had made the effort to support us on a night that had turned into a rolling disaster.  They continued their kindness by saving us from another subway misadventure:  they dropped us off at the Port Authority. Judy and I picked our way through a crowd of homeless men and women who sheltered in cardboard boxes set over grates in the sidewalk at the entrance of the station.  Clouds of steamy air rose around their makeshift hovels.

The bus trip took two hours, but I was glad during the ride to be putting distance between us and New York City.  When we got back to Judy’s parents late that night we looked in our little girl.  She slept snug and warm in a crib.  I thought, “Here’s my real life,” and some of my disappointment faded.

I sold nothing in the show.  Joseph professed to be puzzled by my hostile attitude when I came to pick up my work in January.  A few months later I looked in a gallery guide for New York and saw an upcoming show advertised at his gallery.  The title was, “Representations”.

I got a letter from him the following year in which I was invited to participate in another group show.  The bait was a promise that I would be allowed to choose which paintings would be displayed.  The fee was $750.  I got a phone call from one of his assistants a few weeks later when Joseph noticed that I hadn’t responded.  I didn’t say much when she invited me to air my grievances about the December show.  I didn’t tell her that I was aware that the proposed show was scheduled in July, a time of the year when most buyers, art aficionados and critics were vacationing out of town.  I didn’t say that I wasn’t stupid and desperate enough to help pay the gallery’s summer rent, or that I had no faith that the opening reception would actually be dedicated to the show in which I would be participating.  I only said, “No, thank you,” and hung up the phone.


Reading and Writing: A Growing Addiction

My mother is an obsessive reader.  She finishes every novel she starts even if she despises it after the first few pages.  She used to try to read all the novels in alphabetical order on the shelves of our local library, and succeeded for a short time to escape from the A section.  When she had gone a few books into the Bs, however, she noticed that the library had added new authors in the As, and she returned to them out of some need for literary completion.  She eventually abandoned her quest and began to buy piles of books at a local church festival.  I contributed to her addiction on her birthday, Mother’s Day and on Christmas by sending her novels, memoirs and books on fashion.  Friends and fellow obsessed readers have lent her additional books, and she always has ten or fifteen in her queue.  She’s often said to me that she doesn’t know how some people get along without books.  They are tools of survival for her, and she uses them as escape pods when her life gets difficult.

I read a lot when I was a kid and got the reputation for being a bookish nerd.  I played basketball on our school team in middle school, and was mocked for buying a biography about Connie Hawkins.  My classmates thought that I was trying to learn how to play better by reading instead of practicing.  I had a bookshelf in my room, and when a couple of guys came over for a visit they refused to believe that I owned and had read the fifteen or twenty novels on display.  I didn’t tell them that my Mom and Grandpa Reger had gotten me hooked at an early age on novels by Booth Tarkington, Mark Twain and Kenneth Roberts.  I had read hundreds of books by the time I hit eighth grade.

I’ve been an artist since the 1980s and am thoroughly aware of the ins and outs of creating visual art.  I got used to the mental and physical struggles that came with painting a landscape, a portrait, a still life. One of the plagues of doing such work is that my mind is free to roam at will as I apply my brushstrokes.  Subconscious crap rises to the top while I’m adding layer after layer of paint, and sometimes I’m busy battling enemies from long ago while also trying to figure out the shape and color of a model’s nose.  The background noise gets very loud and disruptive sometimes, and I dread going to my studio on days when I know that I’ve got plenty of mental garbage stored up.  I’ll sift and sort through memories, consider present difficulties, and worry about the future as the painting creeps along to the finishing line.  I’m like a marathon runner dragging bags of sand behind him as he tries to keep moving forward.

I began to write short stories, plays and novels about ten years ago as an alternative means of being creative.  When I’m writing I get lost in a world of imagination.  Characters and scenes take on an intense life in my mind, and there’s no space for my inner demons and trivial concerns to jump out of their hiding places and jabber at me.  For a time I can escape the prison of my preconceptions, obsessions and self-delusion.  I still paint, but can no longer claim that it is my favorite means of self-expression.

I read little when my kids were young, but books have become important to me once again now that I have a bit more free time.  I read a novel and enter a world that is not tainted by me.  I’m choosier than my mother, however, and only stick with novels that feel amenable.  Sometimes the attraction is based on plot, on interesting characters, or on rich language.  I’m a sucker for a redemption story (not religious redemption, but personal redemption) and hate novels that are slow motion train wrecks.  I love “Nobody’s Fool” by Richard Russo.  The main character, Sully, struggles to come to terms with his life and the influence of his abusive father.  He wins out, unexpectedly at the end, over crushing difficulties.  I hate “Children of a Lesser God” by Arundhati Roy.  She telegraphs a tragic ending from nearly the first page, and makes the reader wait a long time until the desperate moment finally arrives.  This book reminds me of childhood visits to a dentist who never used Novocaine.  I had plenty of time to dread the inevitable in Dr. Roley’s waiting room as I listened to a drill drone on and on while his victims whimpered in pain.

I have lots to do in the concrete world around me, and can’t afford to live in the land of imagination constantly.  But there are days when I’m in the middle of an excellent book and it’s difficult to disengage to go to work or do household chores.  I feel like a deep sea diver who must slowly rise to the surface in slow stages.  For ten or fifteen minutes after closing a book I live in a world that’s tinted with the colors and emotions of the printed page.  I see things through an author colored lens.  The full weight of duties and responsibilities eventually presses down on me again, and it’s a sad moment when the glow of an alternative light fades away.


Front Yard Monet

I set up my easel in the front yard and start to work on the second layer of a landscape.  The first layer was painted wet into wet to block in basic color shapes and looks fairly crude.   My view is straight down the street, and I’m painting it as is, so I’m confused for a second when a pick-up stops at the curb and the driver, a gaunt man with a deep tan and sweat running down his face, leans over toward me and asks, “Whatcha paintin’?”  I point to the canvas, then point up the street and say, “That.”  “Oh,” he replies with a slightly confused look on his face.  He pulls away and I return to work.

The sky is giving me some trouble:  cumulus clouds roll by and constantly change shape.  I’m forced to adapt the shapes and colors of one cloud to fit the contours of a cloud that passed by a half hour ago.  There are overlapping bushes and trees in a distant yard, and they look like a blurry lump on my canvas.  I’ve got to find a way to use different marks and colors to separate them out, but my efforts are only partly successful at this point.  The road feels a little too narrow when I look at the painting.  I compare its width to the yard next to it and realize that I’ve shortchanged the road and made the yard too wide.

An attractive young woman walks up the road toward me.  She’s wearing a tight blouse and short shorts.  She notices me working at my easel and looks at me intently for a brief moment.  I wait in the fond hope that she will stop and inspect my progress, but she pulls out her phone as she passes by and begins to talk and giggle.  My ego rapidly deflates, and I feel like I’m intruding on a private conversation.  My realization that I am mostly invisible to women under the age of 45 is confirmed once again.

Sweat is starting to soak through my shirt, and gnats and one very persistent mosquito are buzzing around my nose.  I close my mouth and swat the air in front of my face.  I’ve inhaled a bug once before, and am not in the mood to repeat my performance of coughing, choking,  and attempting to hack up an insect stuck to the back of my throat.  A sudden breeze comes up and I notice that some of the cumulus clouds in the west are a darker gray.  It might rain.

Two boys ride by on bicycles.  They’re ten or eleven.  One looks back at me and then says to the other, “Did you see that?  I could never paint like that.”  The other says very loudly for my benefit, “He better not paint me.”

I recognize his voice.  He’s the fat little prick who taunted me and my wife when we were out for a walk a few months ago.  We were taking our time heading home, and the little brat sped by with his buddies on their bikes.  He waited till he was out of reach before he taunted, “I bet you had good time in bed last night.”  He apparently took me for an impotent old geezer because of my white hair and slow gait.  I eventually thought of a reply that wouldn’t upset my wife too much and yelled, “Aren’t you a lovely young man!”  He thought a bit as he circled on his bike one block away from me and answered, “At least I don’t have to use Viagra!”  I knew better than to inquire if he’d ever had a boner.

The boys turn a corner and disappear, and I go back to painting muttering curses at the little bastard while envisioning the satisfaction I would get from clotheslining him off his bike if he passed by again.

The clouds clear and the bugs go away when the heat returns, and I make some good progress on some trees in the far background.  I’m beginning to enjoy a sense of peace that I sometimes get while painting outside.  I get the feeling that I’m part of something bigger than myself, that I’m participating in the general flow of life around me.

But my happier mood is broken when the same two boys appear at the end of the street and start to come toward me on their bikes.  I grimly continue painting as fatso comes nearer.  I can tell that he’s going to say something again, and he does:  “Hey Mister, you better not paint me,” he warns.  He glides by with an expectant look on his face as if he hopes that he can goad me into a reaction.  I simply stare at him, and his smug attitude falters a bit.

I paint for another hour before going inside to drink a beer, talk to my wife and start supper.  It’s been a pretty good painting session–I’ve made reasonable progress.  I know that it’ll take another three or four layers before I get close to the finish, but paintings grow like children.  They mature in their own time, and it helps to be patient.














Rough Sketch: An Interview with Aimee Mamelon

rough sketch cover

Here are some sections of an interview with Aimee Mamelon, the author of a new adult novel set in the Central Florida art world.  The book is called,  Rough Sketch.

JR:  I understand that Aimee Mamelon is a pen name.  Why adopt a false identity?  Aren’t you proud of this book?

AM:  Nice opener.  Let’s get to the hostility right away.

JR:  I’ll rephrase my question.  Aimee Mamelon is a pen name.  Interesting…

AM:  I’ve worked as a model, artist and art instructor in the Orlando area.  Some of the characters are composites based on people I’ve met, and the plot contains elements of stories I’ve been told and my own experiences. I didn’t want colleagues and  acquaintances and friends leaping to conclusions.

JR:  You didn’t want them to find out that you were writing about them?  Won’t they figure out your identity once they read a few passages that are about things that only you and they went through together?

AM:  Please listen carefully.  This is a novel, not a memoir.  None of the things that happened in this book are a blow by blow account.  The characters in the book are representative of certain types of people I’ve met in the art world, but none of them are direct portraits of actual people.  Got it?

JR:  So you’re not a sex addict?

AM:  No.

JR:  But your main character, Lizzy, is.

AM:  Maybe at the beginning.  I think of her more as a female Don Juan, as someone who’s desperately trying to find fulfillment, to patch a few gaping holes in her life.  She uses sex to take the cutting edge off of her loneliness.

JR:  Why did you open the book with a graphic sex scene?

AM:  Well, obviously, I wanted to get my readers’ attention.  And I wanted to introduce the main character’s core problem right at the outset.  The first chapter is really about playing out her frustrations more than reveling in her satisfactions.

JR:  She keeps trying to find some sort of escape from reality?

AM:  Yes.  Exactly.  She drinks and goes out clubbing and has one night stands to forget that she’s just scraping by, her family drives her nuts, and that she feels unloved and unlovable.  When she takes someone home she can believe for a moment or two that she’s taking control of her life and her needs.

JR:  But of course she just makes things worse.

AM:  Yeah, it takes her a long time to figure out what she really needs and how to get it.

JR:  Have you ever modeled in the nude?

AM:  Yes.  I’ve modeled for art classes, and I posed for a boyfriend who is a figure painter.

JR:  So the scenes where Lizzy models are fairly accurate?

AM:  Oh, yes.  The first time I modeled in a class I thought that I was going to throw up or faint.  It feels pretty strange to be the only naked person in a room of 25.

JR:  Does that get easier the more you do it?

AM:  I was a little nervous every time I modeled, but not nearly as bad as the first time.  It depended a lot on the instructors and the students.  Some teachers were very demanding and didn’t care if my leg went into a spasm during a pose.  They just expected me to keep holding it.  They acted like I was an object.  Some were a lot more kind and took my needs into account…One creepy guy wanted to date me and called me up at home at all hours and asked me what I was wearing.

JR:  That had to be awkward.  What were some of the stranger moments you faced in class?

AM:  I was modeling at a little, nonprofit art school, and all the students were in their thirties or forties.  I relaxed.  Usually it’s younger college kids who show no respect.  Well, anyway, I’m standing on the modelling stage wearing a bathrobe, waiting for the male instructor to stop talking to one of the female students.  He finally says a few words, I drop my robe and hit a pose, and this old bat in the corner looks me straight in the eye.  Her face is red and she’s glaring at me.  She throws down her charcoal, points a finger at me and yells, “Jezebel!  You brazen Jezebel!”

JR:  Really?  What was the class?  Watercolor still life? 

AM:  Figure drawing.  I guess that lady had no idea that artists draw nudes in a figure drawing class.  Go figure.

JR:  What did the instructor do?

AM:  He was pretty cool.  He asked me to put the robe back on, and then he told the lady to pack up and leave.  She demanded her money back, and he opened up his wallet and peeled off a few bills.  He apologized to me after class and said that the school gets some odd balls from time to time.

JR:  Is the art world as tough as you’ve portrayed it in the book?  Is it all about finding out a way to sell out in order to make some cash?

AM:  I’ve understated some things.  It’s intensely difficult to make a living doing anything creative.  Some artists try to tailor their work to a market.  In Central Florida there are a lot of artists doing old fashioned still lives and landscapes.  I see lots of flower paintings and landscapes with a palm tree stuck dead center.  Sky, water, palm tree.  This kind of work usually sells a lot better than scratchy, dark abstractions. 

JR:  Do you look down on the sell-outs?  You went to art school.  Didn’t they teach you to look down your nose at realism?

AM:  I don’t blame them at all.  If they figure out how to turn a buck selling art I’m ready to applaud.  One thing you learn in the art world is that it’s not a meritocracy.  Some of the best artists I’ve known have a huge collection of their own work.  They can’t give it away, and the only ones who really like their work are fellow artists who can’t afford to buy.  Sometimes the least talented artists get to the top of the heap by relentless self-promotion.  But there are times when crap art gets exposed and the good artists get shows and sell.  It’s all random…If someone can figure out how to make the money flow in their direction, even for a short while, then I say, “Go for it chickee!”

JR:  That sounds a little bitter.

AM:  Just trying to be realistic.

JR:  Are you still working as an artist, or are you devoting all of your efforts to perfecting your craft as a writer?

AM:  It’s about even.  Sometimes I feel less inspired to go into my studio and work on a painting.  The computer looks more inviting then.  And sometimes I get tired of digging around for the right word, the right turn of a phrase, and it’s nice to pick up a brush and turn off the words in my head.

JR:  Are you modeling anymore?

AM:  I trade off with friends from time to time.  They pose and I paint, and vice versa.  Mostly it’s just for portraits.  I can’t remember the last time I posed in the nude.

JR:  But not for college classes?

AM:  No.  I gave that up when I put on a few pounds after I had my first baby.  A lot of models quit when they no longer feel confident in their body image anymore.  It takes guts to get up on stage and have twenty pairs of eyes poring over every square inch of your body…And the joints get achy.  I did yoga to stay loose and limber, but after a while I started visiting my chiropractor more often than I wanted to, and modeling seemed like a less attractive way to pick up a few extra bucks.

JR:  At the end of the book Lizzy gives up a lot of her independence to take care of her lover.  Do you think that she made a good choice?

AM:  She learns to give more of herself, to expect less from others.  But I’m not sure if Peter is a good bet in the long run.  He’s an alcoholic with personal issues of his own.  But I think that their relationship gives Lizzy a chance to figure out a different route for her life.  When she’s with him he presents enough of a challenge to force her to make different choices.


My Daughter Hates Rothko


My daughter Annie likes some artists, but hates Rothko.  I am an oil painter, and she grew up around my work and picked up an understanding of the creative process.  Annie developed a mild interest in modern art and has given me thoughtful art related gifts, including a book about Firelei Baez, a cutting edge artist from Miami who combines text, decorative patterns and readable imagery into thought provoking paintings and installations.

We agree on most political issues and have many interesting discussions about books and literature.  We disagree about Mark Rothko’s paintings, however.  His wispy clouds of color do nothing for her, and she thinks that his work is a hoax.  If I want to set her off all I have to do is talk about a rapt moment I once had contemplating a Rothko at the National Gallery.  I can go on and on about the subtlety of the shifts in color and tone in the deep plum paint floating on a field of black, about the quiet, contemplative feeling I got from the painting that reminded me of the hush and awe of sitting in my grandfather’s church (a mini-cathedral with high columns and a painting on the domed ceiling of Mary ascending into heaven).  My daughter rolls her eyes and sputters out puffs of air in disgust as I wax poetic.

I can understand her frustration.  I visited an exhibition in Cincinnati in the early 80s that featured a conceptual piece of art that consisted of a framed piece of graph paper.  (This was back at a time when I still wondered whether I was cool and smart enough to understand why an arrangement of bricks in a rectangle on the floor of a museum was a significant contribution to western culture.)  I looked closely at the graph paper and saw three penciled dots at three intersections of graphed lines.  A book rested on a pedestal nearby, and it explained the significance of the dots.  I didn’t bother to read it as I discovered, at that moment, that I no longer cared whether I understood something that pretentious, precious and hermetic.

There is a lot of conceptual and minimal art that seems pointlessly self-indulgent and obscure.  Little of it speaks to the daily experience of what it means to be human in this time and place.  And there is a huge disconnect between the art going public and the intelligentsia who determine which new work is worthy of support.  It appears to many that there is a willful campaign of obfuscation going on, that only a select few with the right connections and a pile of cash are told the punch line to the inside joke.

I’ve recently come across youtube rants by conservative critics and artists calling for the demise of modern, conceptual art.  Their view is that all modern art going back to Picasso is a cruel hoax invented and perpetuated by no talent, Marxist degenerates.  They want a return to craftsmanship and realistic imagery.  A painting of a young woman should be beautiful;  a painting of an old woman should show the pathos of aging.  Public money should not be spent on an artist who sits in a cage nude while gibbering at passersby, or on a painting that’s simply an arrangement of cream colored squares on a field of bluish white.

I can understand the anger and frustration of conservative critics.  But they also want to throw some artists whose work I understand and appreciate into the art history dumpster.  I enjoy the abstract work of Paul Klee, Georges Braque, Kandinsky, Rouault, Rothko, Philip Guston, Arshille Gorky, Miyoko Ito, etc.  The musical arrangement of their shapes and colors, lines and organic imagery evokes the same complex emotional states I experience when listening to jazz.  Several of my colleagues in Orlando paint color field abstractions, and I understand, at least partially, the inner logic and poetry of their compositions.  I know for a fact that they are not frauds.  They sincerely believe in what they do and work diligently to hone their craft.

Miyoko Ito

Conservative critics, those who support work that appeases their preconceptions about high quality art, worry me for another reason.  A dictator with a similar set of opinions staged an exhibition in Munich in 1937.  Its title was “Degenerate Art”. The work collected for the show was taken from museums throughout Germany, and part of Hitler’s rant at the opening was a diatribe against spending public money on paintings and sculptures that he thought showed no merit and poor craftsmanship. His arguments against the work of Klee, Max Beckmann, George Grosz, the Cubists and Expressionists are fairly close to the tirades spouted by youtube ranters today.

Any act of creativity is an act of communication. Conservative critics often get angry when confronted by a message that doesn’t agree with their traditional values.  Liberal art world elites, on the other hand, maintain their priestly power by acting out rituals in a mystery cult.  They give value to hieroglyphs that few outside their circle can decipher.  They are like the Delphic oracles who delivered prophesies difficult to interpret, easy to misunderstand.  It’s hard to decide which side to favor as both seem equally unattractive to me.

I am more comfortable using the traditional skills of western art to tell my stories, to deliver my message.  I’ve lost the ability when painting to feel the emotional impact of a streak of blue juxtaposed to a smear of orange.  But I’m not an arch conservative either.  I get caught in between.  I nearly got pushed out of my position when my department at a local art school was taken over by an artist who truly believed that oils based on 18th century painting practices and subject matter were the only genuine form of art.  And I got dismissed from an adjunct post for teaching practices and concepts that were too traditional to be in accord with the postmodernist, conceptual prejudices of the department director.

In the end I believe that a good piece of art speaks to the changing human condition in a fairly intelligible manner.  I don’t care if that is achieved by traditional or experimental means.  I’m not addicted to either novelty or convention.  If one artist wants to speak about the brevity and fragility of life by painting a detailed portrait of a wrinkly old man holding a delicate egg, that’s fine with me.  If another makes a grotesque human figure out of pieces of bone hot glued and tied together with lengths of hair to show that our bodies are haphazardly mortal, that’s fine with me.

A few months ago I was confronted by a man at an opening reception who got angry at me when I told him my story about the graph paper with the three penciled dots.  He was a passionate advocate for all things conceptual and modern, and was even more appalled when I told him that Robert Ryman’s white on white paintings (an ongoing series that Ryman started in the early 60s) were a joke to me.  The man blustered and clenched his fists, and I thought that he was about to punch me in the face.  Then I added that I liked the austere paintings of Agnes Martin, a transitional artist from the abstract expressionists to the minimalists, and he started to calm down.  He still thought that I was a conservative fool, but a moderate one.

R. Ryman painting exhibition

I was more amused by his reaction than offended, and didn’t mind it all that much when he challenged my intelligence and taste.  I had suffered through similar forms of condescension in grad school.

But I did wonder why he was so personally invested in the debate.  His world didn’t come to an end when I disagreed with him.  And the conservative critics on youtube seem to enjoy their outrage a little too much.  What would they do to feed the anger machine if every artist suddenly painted the conservative version of politically correct art (fruit and flower still lives, reverential illustrations of Bible scenes, etc.)?  Would the rage addicted critics switch targets and start yelling at chefs who experimented with nouvelle cuisine?  Would they start screaming, “What’s the matter with meatloaf?!”

I think that it would be lovely if we stopped yelling at each other and just went out and supported art that speaks to us.  Time will tell if anything we currently value is of lasting importance.  And I’ve resolved, in a sudden fit of forbearance, to let my daughter hate Rothko and never speak his name to her again.

We See What We Expect to See


DSC_1215Portrait Bust

When I first learned to drive I was worried that I might hit a pedestrian. My neighborhood had narrow, car lined streets, and I anticipated a moment when a little kid might run out between two parked cars. A few years went by without an accident or incident, and I began to relax. One night I drove home from work at about two in the morning after a busy, hectic shift at Godfather’s Pizza. I was aware that the bar patrons were headed home after closing time and kept an eye out for drunks along the curb. I saw a hulking form in dim light in the distance that looked like a large man standing by the road. I slowed down when I approached him, and the half-lit shape turned out to be a mail box.

Years later I attended my nephew’s wedding near Cleveland. My daughter Annie and son Alan came along for the trip. My daughter has similar hair and skin color to her mother, but is 33 years younger. On two occasions Annie was mistakenly greeted as my wife by relatives who saw her standing near me. My uncle was about three feet away when he asked her about her teaching (my wife was a professor). My daughter, of course, was mortified to be misidentified as my spouse, but that wasn’t the end of it. At the wedding she wore a dress that bloused out at the waist that inspired a drunk woman at the reception to spread a pregnancy rumor. The tipsy matron’s family had had its share of forced marriages over the years, the inebriate was on the look out for distended bellies among the young women at the gathering, and she saw what she expected to see.

I’ve spent years teaching beginning drawing to students with little or no background in fine art. Most are graphic communications majors and prefer their computers to a stick of charcoal. I teach them the basics of perspective as best I can, and have said “Parallel lines appear to converge as they move away from you,” on countless occasions. I explain that the side edges of a table appear to converge so that the back edge looks smaller than the front edge, that an illusion of depth can be created by following this rule when drawing the table on a two dimensional piece of paper. But many students insist on drawing the side edges so that the back edge of the table is exactly the same width as the front edge. They know conceptually that the front and back measure the same and draw them accordingly. When I follow up and show them that they’ve lost the illusion of depth these students often look at me in disbelief. Some challenge me. One women told me that I must see things differently than she did.

And perhaps I do. Observing colors, tones and lines in still lives, landscapes, portraits and figures has taught me to doubt my assumptions. What I think I see and what is actually there are two separate things. Painting and drawing realistically can be an investigation into What Is. As an oil progresses in several layers I begin to notice colors I hadn’t seen at the beginning and details that appear to emerge from nowhere. I get the impression after working on a subject for an extended period of time that the visual world is nearly infinite, that more and more can be observed if I am willing to put in the time.

But I am mainly aware of the open possibilities of experience when I am painting. I still make assumptions in social situations about another person’s character and intentions based on my past experience. I interpret behavior and assign motives without waiting for an individual to fully reveal their qualities. I do this out of self-protection and a need to prepare myself for all eventualities. But this narrows my experience down to seeing what I expect to see.

And there have been times when my expectations have been fulfilled and my suspicions have been confirmed. But at others I’ve been surprised by unforeseen depths in a person I had assumed was shallow, by kindness hidden beneath a rough exterior, and by playfulness in a man who appeared to have no humor and imagination.

I believe that the world can open up and reveal immense vistas if we simply wait, watch, and observe without judgment. Then a girl with a bloused out dress isn’t pregnant, a mailbox is simply a mailbox, and the back edge of a table appears to be smaller than the front edge. And the student who appears to be fairly thick says something insightful and intelligent. And the light on a curve of my wife’s temple reveals her beauty to me once more. And the neighbor who appears to be a heartless and cold reveals his gentle nature when talking to his dog. There’s more out there to be heard, seen, felt than we can ever fully take in, more abundance than we can ever appreciate.

I have a cold this morning that has been lingering for several days. My joints ache a bit and my head feels like it has been stuffed with cotton. But the sun is bright today and the trees outside my window are swaying gently in a breeze. The red pick-up truck parked on Chilean Dr. adds an exclamation point to the surrounding green. A man in a white hoody walks past with quick, determined steps as two garbage men clad in fluorescent green safety vests collect the garbage at the end of the driveway. A car passes by in a blur and I briefly see a sixty year old man with a fringe of white hair speed past in a silver sedan.

The world looks strangely beautiful, even though I’ve seen this view before, and I feel a sense of happiness until my nose begins to run and a cough begins to collect at the back of my throat. I get trapped in the mental loop of wishing that I felt better. But then I listen to my exhalation of disgust, to the click of the keys on my laptop, to my wife is stirring in the living room and to the garbage truck rumbling in the distance. And in this particular moment it feels good to be alive.


Teach an Elephant to Paint

My wife Judy and I were talking this afternoon about De Kooning, the abstract expressionist painter. She sarcastically said, “What a lovely man,” and I realized that she meant Jackson Pollock.  (We watched the Ed Harris biopic several years ago, and Judy came away believing that Jackson was an egocentric, alcoholic philanderer.  She didn’t buy into the myth that he was a tortured genius.) I said, “You’re thinking of Pollock…I’m not sure what kind of guy De Kooning was, but his wife sure had some issues.”  I related the stories I had read claiming that Elaine De Kooning slept with influential critics to get good reviews for her husband’s work.

While we were talking I was reminded of my favorite De Kooning anecdote: newspaper reporters showed De Kooning photographs of paintings made by a chimp.  They looked like abstract expressionist paintings. De Kooning didn’t take offense and said, “I don’t know much about art, but that monkey is one good painter.”

I told the monkey story to Judy and also remarked that brushes, paints and canvases have been given to elephants.  The pachyderms use their trunks to handle the brushes with care and sensitivity and seem to be deeply absorbed in thought as they paint.

The walls in our house are covered with my unsold paintings, and there will never be any chance that we will have to purchase art to decorate a bare spot.  As I glanced away from Judy and looked around the living room the adage about teaching a man to fish popped into my head.  I told Judy, “You give a painting to an elephant, and it has art for a day. You teach an elephant how to paint and it has art for the rest of its life.”

We had a good laugh.