Friday, December 20, 2013

Post #19 From My Daughter's Window

Six years ago, almost to the day, I slipped on black ice and broke my ankle forcing me to spend six weeks in a nursing home and an additional six weeks in my daughter and her husband’s “handicapped accessible” apartment on West End Avenue in Manhattan. They went about their busy New York lives, leaving me in the gentle care of the housekeeper, Julia. Unable to go out on my own, I found myself confined to the “guest” room with its glorious 11th floor views of the city, and nothing to do. In retrospect, it was one of the most productive, wonderful periods of my life.

A recent letter to the New York Times quoted the writer, Amy Tan, as expressing the “classic writer’s fantasy – going to jail to have enough time to read and write. “  In my case, I had six weeks of uninterrupted time to draw, finally understanding much of what I had been taught but never fully comprehended. Every morning, I pulled my chair up to the window overlooking West End Avenue, took out a pad and pencil and began to sketch the same scene over and over again for six weeks. I’ve never been much good at architectural rendering, barely passing the subject in college, but my initial efforts on a small 4”x6” scale were passable.

Hour after hour, day after day, I drew the same scene: all kinds of weather, light, and from different vantage points. The drawings grew somewhat larger, never exceeding 8”x10.”  I generally finished one in the morning, another one after lunch. In a sense, I was proceeding on the path taken by Cezanne in his sixty-plus views of Mount Ste. Victoire, or Monet in his numerous views of the Cathedral of Rouen or his waterlily pond. By repeating the same subject matter, over and over again, I could reach its essence, go beyond the purely visual and create art. As I worked, I kept hearing Manet’s words: “There are no lines in nature.” He, of course, was referring to the way shapes are formed by flat areas of color butted up against one another, I was doing drawings and my shapes were formed by the black, white and gray of the pencil.
I discovered that the scene before me was constantly changing. In bright sunshine, the edges of dark and light were clear and defined; when the weather was cloudy or near evening, grayness took over, muting the buildings and the sky. 

I had accidentally come across the perfect drawing paper, a heavy tan “butcher” stock I found lining tables at a nearby restaurant. It provided my work with a “middle tone” that allowed for deep charcoal darks and white pencil accents.  Soon, without my being conscious of it, barely-defined people began to appear on rooftops alongside Classical arcades, ornate cornices and robot-like water towers. What were they doing? Going about their daily lives or contemplating suicide? The drawings took on a surreal, DeChirico quality that I liked. I had entered, without being aware of it, a psychological state known as “breaking set,” (literally, “breaking down a mindset”) referring to freeing oneself from habitual responses and thought processes. I now saw the scene before me, not as a drawing “problem,” but one of depicting shapes, the ever-changing light, intriguing shadows, mists and clouds, mysterious people and menacing black birds.

And then, fully healed, I went home, resumed my regular life and put the drawings away… until today, when I wrote this post.  

Friday, December 13, 2013


In the early 1980s, I began a series of urban tableaux inside discarded supermarket boxes (the influence of Arte Povera, a movement out of Italy at the time that emphasized the use of “humble” materials).  I used my collection of old photos of downtown Stamford as backgrounds – especially Pacific Street, Stamford’s ‘urban renewal-ed’ version of New York City’s Lower East Side. The boxes became miniature stage sets, filled with my drawings of real people: all ages, nationalities, sizes, shapes and colors. The box project worked for me because my time to do artwork was so limited: I was teaching two classes in Art History at the University of Connecticut in Stamford, running a non-profit preservation organization and caring for a family. The boxes, fortunately, could be worked on whenever I had a few spare minutes; unlike painting, they didn’t require large swaths of unbroken time.

Everywhere I went, I picked up boxes and it didn’t take long before I had a studio full of them, stacked in towers, one on top of another, all sizes and shapes. Since I had photocopied my people in different sizes, I could place them in a variety of settings, typical of an urban street environment. I even experimented with miniature lights, creating haunting stage effects. Unlike more traditional artwork that you just “hung,” the boxes were difficult to exhibit; they required special environments where lighting could be controlled. I’ve installed walls and towers of boxes in libraries, galleries and museums, in different arrangements. I even put them up in the windows of a gallery on Prince Street in SOHO. Despite freezing weather, crowds of people stood for long periods of time, studying them. A friend of mine who worked nearby told me of a co-worker coming back late from lunch and telling her that she had just seen “the most remarkable” exhibit in a SOHO gallery window. My friend immediately knew what she meant.

My favorite box exhibit was held many years ago in the Westport Art Center, located, at the time, in an old school building. The show was called “The Boxists” and featured a prominent group of Joseph Cornell-like “assemblagists” who had worked and exhibited together for many years. I was an outsider. To install my pieces, I enlisted the help of two friends who worked at the Stamford Museum: Ken Marchione, Director of Art, and Ed Glissom who was in charge of exhibits. They had a van and brought up one hundred or so boxes. I had no idea how I was going to install them but I figured my two experienced guys would figure something out. The show was held in a large gym/gallery but by the time we arrived, the other Boxists had appropriated all the wall space and no one had any intention of giving me an inch. The curator, a sweet woman, was intimidated by them and stood there, helpless, unable to order anyone to make room for me.

Lacking wall space, Ed, Ken and I decided to commandeer the center of the gym. Using a couple of wooden skids Ken had in his truck, we proceeded to create a ten-foot pyramid of grungy boxes. They were totally out of place among the slick pieces of my co-exhibitors who refused to cast so much as a glance in my direction. The Einsels, a well-known husband and wife designer team looked particularly unhappy. No one spoke to us; my work was ruining their precious show. To be quite honest, they were correct, I didn’t fit in.

But I have to tell you, my pile of detritus was the hit of the exhibit. The sophisticated Westport crowd at the opening found the work “refreshing” (at least they hadn’t seen it a zillion times before) and gathered round in droves, full of praise. The art critics (there were art critics in the newspapers in those days) used my work to illustrate their reviews. But the best came from Vivian Raynor, who wrote for the New York Times. She ended her critique by saying “If that’s what real people look like (they do, Vivian), then it’s time for me to fall on my ball point pen.” I loved it. I was a “succès de garbage.”

Friday, December 6, 2013


Thanksgiving is not one of my favorite holidays. Like Christmas, Passover etc, it arouses all sorts of expectations of love and good will and fulfills very few. I kind of dread this time of year in general: cold, dark and depressing. I recently read that in medieval times, farm families in France  would often sleep huddled together for warmth through most of the winter, getting up only to do necessary chores. Wonder if I could get away with that?

However, one of the more interesting Thanksgivings I ever spent was in Las Vegas several years ago. Imagine having a traditional family dinner in a strip mall restaurant next to a hockey rink off a barren eight-lane highway in one of the most desolate cities in the United States. Hardly a Norman Rockwell image of Thanksgiving. One of my teen-age grandsons was starring in a hockey tournament and his family wanted to spend the holiday with him. Andrew, his father, my oldest son, sent out a plea to his siblings to join him and create some semblance of a holiday celebration. I had never been to Vegas before, was curious to see the place and accepted their invitation. The casinos and the hotels, as expected, were swollen and grotesque, caricatures of contemporary architecture, but the rest of the city, the “normal” part, was even more depressing.

My daughter Eve, an assiduous researcher, discovered that Las Vegas held two hidden treasures. One was the Pinball Machine Museum, a couple hundred or so clanking, squealing examples of American ingenuity and vulgarity that you could actually play.  The other, the Neon Museum was an “elephant’s graveyard” of old neon gambling and nightclub signs, acre after acre of abandoned neon letters - some fifty years old - advertising the best that Sin City had to offer. Remember the old United Housewrecking on Selleck Street? It kind of looked like that, On a more artistic level,  it was like being inside a Schwitters collage. (Kurt Schwitters was a German dada-ist artist who loved commercial signage and used cast-off scrap in his assemblages.) He would have gone berserk with joy at the sight of all these wonderful letters thrown on the ground and abstracted into a jumble of colors and shapes. The neon sign museum was the high point of our visit, although I have to say, the untouched desert surrounding the city, - landscape that up until then had escaped development - was spectacular in its own way.

I had a great time photographing the remains of broken signs and lights We were told that there were plans in the works to “fix everything up” (ruining it in the process?)  Let’s hope whoever is in charge understands the significance of what is there, and leaves it undisturbed, an extraordinary example of a graveyard more exciting than any art gallery. If you ever get to Vegas, never mind the slots or the tired acts or the dancing girls; head straight for the Neon Museum. Now that’s an experience worth having!