What are we doing here in this life anyway? For a lot of people, a six pack of beer and a football game answer that question very nicely. For others it’s family, grandchildren, and community. To be an artist is to not be satisfied by those happy ways. To be an artist is to be an outsider looking in, like Thomas Mann’s “Tonio Kroger”, a character to whom I related strongly as a teenager. All those material and social comforts are not for us.
An artist has to find his own way, driven to respond to his experience of life in the best way he can. As my teacher and friend Harry Callahan put it, to share “what I feel and have always known”. That is the motivation, to do something, say something, make something that is a deep expression of who you are and how you feel about this mysterious life. On the most basic level, the artist is someone who produces something, but to be called Art the thing produced must have special qualities attached to it. Skill coming from talent is appreciated by everyone, easily appreciated. Skill is important but, to my mind, other values are more important.
In the best work there is a sense of passionate intention, the desire to capture a feeling in whatever medium. I started as a photographer and the great photographers were able to do that. My heroes were Cartier Bresson, Danny Lyon, and Harry Callahan. I knew them all. But for me, the simple, direct approach of a reed pen drawing in india ink on paper and oil paint on canvas provided a more satisfying experience. So that is what I have been doing now for over forty years.
How did this all happen? Why did it happen? The oracle of Apollo in Delphi said in Greek, “Gnothi Seauton, Know Thyself.”It is a hard directive, easier said than done. For whatever reasons, this idea attracted me strongly from a young age. When young Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye, smack dab in the middle of teenage angst and confusion, went on a quest “to find himself” I related.
The affluent world I was in after WWII was not satisfying to me. And I noticed that it didn’t seem to make the adults I knew very happy either. It certainly didn’t solve the problems of our family, something I wrote about extensively in my book, The Painting of My Life.
What did make sense was my father’s clever and skilful cartoons, his writing, my mother’s excellent painting, the painting of my sister Mary, and the good reproductions of Van Gogh paintings on the walls of our house, “La Berceuse” and “Boats at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer”, as well as my father’s black and white photographs. Our neighbour Rowl Scherman was a teen idol with the guitar and later a fine photographer working for Life Magazine. A book and a film about him came out in 2016: Eye on the Sixties: The Iconic Photography of Rowland Scherman. His brother Tom was exceptionally talented in drawing and went on to work at Disney. Down the street, a woman twenty years my senior, Lee Schoenburg, was the editorial director at Magnum Photos. We became lifelong friends. My godfather, Paul Rhymer, wrote over three thousand episodes of Ma Perkins, one of the most popular shows on radio before television took over. He is considered one of the great American humourists of the twentieth century, in a class with Will Rogers. That is a whole lot of background, something I haven’t mentioned before.
For me, Art seemed to make sense as an antidote to the materialism surrounding me. I had spiritual awareness from an early age. Art seemed closer to religion than to business. The idea of it in my mind was quite pure. That being said, I think most of us start out wanting the élan, the fame, the honour, and the glory we associate with “specialness” and our art heroes. It is easy to forget that Van Gogh shot himself in the stomach and took three days to die, that he sold only one painting in his life, and that his mother used his paintings to plug holes in her chicken coop. We remember those things later when the artist’s path gets bumpy which it does.
I became a photographer and studied painting in the New York museums to understand art principles: light, composition, contrast, values, and many other things which were also applicable to photography. With my Magnum Photos connection, I worked in photojournalism, working to capture the street events of the nineteen sixties, working in league with great photographers as much as I could. I was just a kid, in my early twenties and they were twice my age, most of them.
But I also felt that photojournalism was not enough, not what I was looking for exactly. The beautiful idea of art was what I was seeking and if I didn’t know what that was, I did have a sense of what it was not. So I packed my bags and took my small R-18 1965 Renault all the way across America to Yosemite National Park to meet Ansel Adams and learn about photography as Art. He was a technical master and just at the beginning of getting the tremendous recognition he deserved.
But somehow his wonderful pictures, so controlled and technically beautiful, seemed dead and less personal to me than the street photography I knew so well. The workshop was a few weeks long and we had been asked to submit some of our prints for evaluation on acceptance, and I had done that. At a big introductory meeting of the whole group in Yosemite, I was very surprised to see that Ansel had made slides of several of my photographs, one of Janis Joplin I remember and a couple of others, and he talked, without having met me, about how good they were. This was very confusing since I was here in Yosemite to be more like him and less like me, or so I thought.
This gets into the essence of the oracle’s message, “Know Thyself”. Art is all about that, about being comfortable in your own skin, about showing who you are through your work. I now know I was better than I thought I was. Lack of confidence was blocking my path.
We need skill; there are technical aspects, but the important part, as I know now, is honesty, sincerity, purity, true feeling, those kinds of qualities. When you know art history from the Venus of Willendorf to the work of Cy Twombly, or Horace Pippin, or Pierre Bonnard, or Joan Mitchell, you will know this is true. Unfortunately, most people don’t know much about art at all and real artists suffer from that, being compared unfavourably to the slick practitioners who fill the commercial galleries all over the world. That’s why most artists give up, fall by the wayside or sell out, even the most talented ones.
At about the time I made my journey to see Ansel and find out about photography as Art, I met Herman Cherry, a first generation New York School abstract painter and friend of David Smith, the sculptor, Ruben Kadish, the sculptor, Charles Pollock, Jackson’s brother, also a painter, and many more. He was part of the scene from the beginning and knew them all. I was twenty four when I met Cherry and he was fifty nine. We met through a mutual friend, Zena Voynow, a film editor who was the sister in law of Sergei Eisenstein, the legendary Russian film director, someone you study if you study film. We met in East Hampton, the most important place outside of New York City for artists. Jackson Pollock had a studio there and Willem de Kooning whom I got to know.
My first wife, Melynda, and I were sitting on the veranda of Zena and Andrew’s house and some small crab apples came rolling off the roof and onto the veranda. “That’s Cherry,” said Zena, and so it was. We hit it off immediately despite the fact that when he took us over to his house and showed us his new paintings, I said, innocently, “They look like what Frank Stella is doing.” Of course that is one of the worst things you can say to an artist, since artists, as I have mentioned, try like hell to let their own individuality come out, not someone else’s. Zena told me very quickly, pulling me aside, “Don’t ever tell an artist his work looks like someone else’s.” I remembered that.
I think Cherry appreciated my innocent honesty even if it hurt. At that time he was stuck as a painter, and not long after that he stopped painting for a number of years and wrote poetry, quite good poetry. He published a few volumes and was respected as a poet. From that point on I saw all of his life since we became good friends. I did some abstract acrylic paintings, small ones, which he liked and he was very appreciative of my photography. I became friends with his friends, Edie and Ed Dugmore were favourites and I still admire “Doug’s” abstract paintings very much.
Cherry was respected by everyone as a colorist but also as being super knowledgeable about painting, art history and many other things related to Art. He was exceptionally smart without making a big deal about it but it was recognizable to those who paid attention.
Over the next twenty four years, until his death, we were in touch and visited as frequently as possible. He started painting again and the work he did the last fifteen years of his life was truly great and appreciated by galleries and buyers. I was with him when I met my French partner, Francine, and I was at his wedding when he married a German woman my age.
He knew Aaron Siskind who became a photography teacher of mine at Rhode Island School of Design, (RISD). He had known Siskind’s great friend Frans Kline, whose work Siskind had followed in photography, a clear path and a successful one. And this mention of Aaron Siskind, a very good guy and a great teacher, ties into the fundamental value I am trying to reveal. I pondered this deeply at the time; how much of what Siskind accomplished was due to basically imitating in photography what Kline did with paint on canvas? Aaron did what he did very well and I won’t try to take that away from him. But what I was looking for was something more personal, deeper, and connected to the core identity of the person. If one believes in the idea of a soul, then that is what I was hoping to express. I want art to be, above all, soulful.
In photography Harry Callahan had that gift and so did Henri Cartier Bresson and some others but not many. For me expression in the way I sought was very difficult with a camera because of the machine itself, the mechanical thing between you and what you were hoping to express. And that’s why, as soon as I got to RISD at age thirty and was encouraged by classmate Jenny Holzer, (“If you want to paint, paint”), I jumped ship and spent the next three years drawing and painting with the support of very astute and kind teachers.
My first drawings in ink drew immediate attention. Out of my lack of experience came a direct, unfiltered, strong expression. Most of my classmates were impressed and encouraging but a few were upset because their more technically skilled works were not so appreciated. Technique is respected by everyone but not loved and technique alone is not Art, far from it.
I was thrilled to see what I could do with a reed pen and India ink and I still am. I believe strongly in what I do that way. Painting has been a lot harder although I think, after all this time, there is a sense of me, my own style and personality in my painting. It can take years to work through influences, other peoples’ ideas, before you become you as an artist.
What I might hope for is that my painting be as personal and individual as my drawing. I think that is everything I know about art. It is a special calling. Art is a rejection of materialism and comfort in order to find a deeper meaning and it comes from the belief that the individual has something special to say, to contribute. It is beyond the glitz and noise of this grinding world. It is an oasis of purity in the middle of all that. In its essence, Art is spiritual.
Surabaya April 2018