Saturday, January 30, 2010


I bought books about art. This was out of my old book reading habits. The books were mostly worthless. It was like the way I took notebooks with me to those meetings. I did make some notes in them, but the notes were as useless as the linear art histories, for what I was hearing in meetings, and seeing in paintings, was not some linear thing to figure out and categorize with simple insights. These meetings, these paintings, were always about a life, with all the mystery found inside a life.

Art was for me so clearly about this mystery of life. If I read the gray critics and art historians it was from force of habit in the same way I might scan reviews of books by literary critics trapped in theory.

I did sometimes look up the artists I was following. And I even read some silly reviews of some of the art I was experiencing. A man named Russell in the Times had just done what he apparently considered a major piece in which he told New Yorkers that they should forget the Impressionists, who were good for nothing except maudlin middle class sentimentality, and instead they should focus now on things like a large, gruesome, realistic Titian that showed a man being flayed alive. For their own good.

My education in visual art in this time I took the plunge was entirely visual. I had no words for the way Andrea del Sarto used black in his depiction at the Met of the Holy Family, but black took me into Murillo, the only classical Spanish painter with whom I connected then, though the academics insisted I should love Velázquez. And Murillo’s black took me to Goya, and black also took me into Manet, which in the Met also led me into those wonderful women of flesh in Courbet, who understood black too.

Andréa del Sarto’s young women, sometimes Madonnas, based on his girl/woman wife, could move a viewer to tears without the viewer having to know as I knew (well I did find it in books) that he loved her passionately and that when he fell ill with plague she deserted him. I did not know who the Venetian woman was who appeared over and over in the form of Bellini Madonas, but there was a heightened reality for me here. There was something here I knew and often sensed in nudes. And I found myself returning to a woman who appeared in Madonna paintings by Francia. She had a face like I had only seen in life once before, the face of my friend, nearly girlfriend, Linda (pronounced Leenda), whom I had meet in a strange back street office in Amman, Jordan.

Linda had just come up for a few says from Washington, where she had gone while married and where she now worked for a Palestinian organization. I had first known her in Amman and Lebanon, where her curiosity had led to fascination. This time when we met we went to the museums together. One look at a Hobbema and she knew what it was all about. And this had made me wonder if there were not more than the Hobbema summer day I had to give up.

A day later, alone, I looked at the Constable White Horse that hung near a Hobbema in the Frick, Constable’s scene by a mill where you smell the hay and muddy water and the horse. It was one of the paintings in my now regular rounds of New York museums that had given me great hope – like the late midieval nudes of Cravath, anatomically incorrect but so loving as to be real, or like Matisse’s small bronze nudes, or Alfred Lord Stevens’ evocations of his love for everything he painted.

Standing face to face with the Constable I made a sad farewell, thinking for a time that if I could not have the summer day in Hobbema I could not have it anywhere. Hobbema whose dark Dutch woods, had led me in memory into the darkness of the White Mountains. And now the darkness of the White Mountains seemed so complete that it left no room for anything anywhere that said otherwise.

It seemed to me for a time that, although Constable had made a try at covering up horror that lay underneath, his attempts were not good enough. And for a time now I could not look at Monet, my favorite since I was 16, without seeing what he did with pure color as deceptive, even when he took you into darkness in his big water lily panorama at the Modern. A nice try, and I wished I could stay with it. Wished I did not have to trash Monet in the manner almost of a dead critic, and leave Monet in the same place as the sentimental art used by bullies, whether in Nazi Germany or in Life Magazine, to cover up their grim deeds.

I thought for a time
that I had fewer choices now that I saw Hobbema's summer day in terms of darkness and betrayal. And it was as if all the best landscape painters were now leading me to the darkness of old New Hampshire as surely as black led to Manet.

So it seemed I had to say farewell to Constable. So much had changed in the landscape of my own past. If the apparent warm beauty of the White Mountains had never been what it seemed, and could not be trusted, neither could Constable’s version of natural beauty.

And I kept thinking of how Linda on another trip two years back had introduced me to Alice Miller. Also to Freud’s Melancholia and Mourning, but especially to Alice Miller. And then I was thinking of a time in 1973 after I left Amman, and Linda was caught there in the Yom Kippur War, and afterwards had come to Beirut and stayed with me and we had almost been a couple, and again once when she stayed with me in New York and very briefly we acted like lovers but did not become a couple there either.

And now the lack of connection in my past life seemed to have something to do with the earth shaking connection I was experiencing between aqua and blood red – the aqua skies in early Flemish paintings that were on my now regular route though the Met’s European painting section and the blood red with which the skiles were streaked. Aqua and blood red leading me, as black did too, not just from one artist to another but from one part of life to another, from one present time into past times. In the East Village I saw aqua and blood red again in a harsh and biting feminist artist’s depiction of a woman crucified. Such razor-edge sexually that it could have been Gorky that got her, or me, there.

And then in the East Village I came upon not Hans Hoffman but someone who had studied with Hans Hoffman and I knew these colors, that seemed to change positions and relationships as I looked, were important to me even if I could not quite catch them now. And maybe I had tried too hard intellectually to catch the abstract paintings Vannie had done that I liked so much so very long ago when I was first living in New York.

In another East Village gallery I saw paintings by a man who did not start painting until he was 80, and could bring life even to a depiction of a tile-covered building in ways that could escape a more carefully trained artist. And I was thinking that I am a mere kid compared to this guy.

And also in the East Village all these story paintings that I had not known anyone was doing. A series done by a couple – actually two people co-existing, to my amazement, on the same canvas – that had K-Marts and Indian canoes mixed up with each other in no longer innocent landscapes. And there were several series of paintings that had to do with what was most on my mind – the mystery and entrapment and torture of childhood.

I came back to these amazing East Village galleries many times without Suzanna. And more than once a gallery owner said she or he assumed that I was an artist.

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