Thank you for letting me call you Bill, even though I am not a friend nor part of your generation.
The ethos of Ab Ex has been challenged far too long–since my years as an art student in the early 1970s. Actually since the 1960s when I was just beginning to be interested in visual culture as my future realm in life. It hurts me deeply. In college, I remember discussions with other older students after class, which depressed me, about the utter lack of validity of a personal vision because we were primarily controlled by politics, gender, race and class. I believe that culture, including visual art, is as or actually much more important than politics and helps bridge difference if it is humanist, spiritual and sublime. I thought rarely about politics, only when reading The New York Times, The Nation, or watching Jim Lehrer. I did not believe that politics and painting were a good couple. What did my poetic metaphors for the life force have to do with governments and political realities? Was there also a life force in the political world–I did not know. Painting answered and also raised profound philosophical states in me. I felt in touch with my own God. I felt in touch with history. I felt in touch with humanity when at work in the studio or when contemplating the finished work. I felt in touch with Nature. I felt in touch with meaning. I understood more clearly my own psychology. I worked against the dominant grain when I lived in Hoboken. And still am nearly thirty years later.
During my early years in Hoboken I worked at the American Museum of Natural History making molds and casts of fossils. My imagery changed somewhat after beginning to work in the vertebrate paleontology lab, becoming inspired by the fossil dinosaurs and turtles of my daily life. Figurative elements crept into the work, a slight change from the abstract scapes of my first few shower curtains. The paintings also became more textured with a complex surface. Because I painted with disposable chop sticks I wove thin skeins of acrylic paint over one another. During business hours I spent some of my work week preparing fossils with most of the time spent making molds and casts of fossil specimens. I saw a relationship between the layers of matrix in a fossil specimen and the layers of paint in one of my paintings. I thought that my paintings were about time. I felt that viewers of my work, if patient enough, experienced time in similar ways to watching a film though it was not linear viewing but a spiritual and intangible experience with the final image resulting from an endless layering of history, emotion, thought and consciousness. I found the work of being a lab assistant interesting though I worried about using the polyester resin for too many years. I wasn’t extremely worried about the health hazards because I was employed as an assistant on a National Science Foundation grant and knew that the grant was coming to an end in a couple of years. But it was ironic that my job gave me health benefits while also exposing me to health dangers on the job.
When the grant was nearing its end, after several years working on the Meiolania, also called the Great Horned Turtle as it had no way to retract its skull into its shell so was very vulnerable to predators, I resigned, and I started working at Rutgers University in Newark as a gallery assistant. My neighbor, Peter Homitzky, who was my partner’s best friend, had recommended me for the position. In spite of my meager earnings I was glad that I worked part time because I had become a general partner in a studio loft building and needed to work on the building during the initial year of demolition and renovation. I had received a state grant for my shower curtain paintings so that I had the money for my art supplies and also received a bequest from Dr. Louis Wolf, an 83 year old volunteer from the American Museum of Natural History who was like a second grandfather to me, and had the six thousand dollars needed to become a general partner. My maternal grandfather, Duncan Cameron, had died before I was born and I had already lost my father’s father, Charles Beane Weld, when I met Dr. Wolf. Dr. Wolf was such a supportive friend, introducing me to classical music at Lincoln Center as well as Broadway musicals always with fine dinners beforehand. After the year of the building renovation was over I began to paint with oil paint rather than acrylic. I started my Striation series, less figurative than my fossil turtle imagery but still related to the concept of paleontological time. I still saw each layer of paint as the equivalent of minerals surrounding a fossil specimen. However I was building up the layers to create the imagery. At this same time I was promoted to the position of part time gallery curator as I had helped write a successful grant for exhibition programming and had ten shows to help organize for the year. The gallery director approved everything I did but gave me a lot of freedom. It was an exciting job for a young artist. I met the artist George McNeil who had been recommended by Peter for a show in the main gallery space. Peter and I visited McNeil together in Brooklyn and we looked at early works as well as the works he was going to show which were based on the landscape. McNeil opened up our landscape series in the summer of 1985. The critic Michael Brenson reviewed both McNeil and Melvin Edwards in Gallery 2 in the national section of The New York Times. I was ecstatic as were McNeil and Edwards.
Three years later, as an artist employed in a museum, I looked for artists who embraced my catholic ethos and were the mediums for something larger and greater than themselves. My friends Stella Waitzkin (1920 - 2003) and Miriam Beerman (born 1923) were greater artists than their often frail and insecure selves in light of the powerful monopoly of the contemporary art world. Their bodies of work did not have their personal distress or foibles. Their distress had been overpowered by the power of their respective imagery and had been interpreted and transformed into culture, that distinguished realm of the intellect I believed in so fervently. Their work gave me much courage in my attempt to be a transmitter, a creator of visceral meaning . We were all part of the realm that I called visual philosophy. We were visual philosophers. I was deeply satisfied with this important endeavor.
I have always wondered why Stella and Miriam were so important to me? Was it solely because of the intensity of their work? Were they predominantly role models or were they substitute mothers, the mothers of my choice? Mothers who were visionary artists, flaunters of the social grace I held as important, both unlike my mother who was politically liberal, socially conservative, the mother of six and the grandmother of eight. To me, her landscapes of our summer home in Lubec, Maine were the antithesis of her forceful Calvinist personality –they were idealized beauty filled with sentiment and love of a place sacred to her. She did not often express any sentimentality or love directly to me. Emotions were just not a big part of our relationship. Like Miriam and Stella, like myself, her personality was unlike her body of poignant landscapes. She was near masculine in her personal toughness while her small paintings were subtle and delicate. Was I attracted to Stella and Miriam because I rebelled against my mother and father’s morality while still in college, wreaking havoc in the family. Of course I was the norm of my socially liberal campus in 1972. Stella and Miriam were not in any way like my parents. I was intrigued by their bohemianism. They were so comfortable with it. Stella’s plates were chipped and her wine was more often than not turned to vinegar. I knew that they didn’t hear the internal voices of anger and moral judgement that I still remember from thirty six years ago. Or was I really transfixed by their body of work--Stella’s beautiful and visionary installations crowding her small Chelsea Hotel apartment and Miriam’s expressionistic, moral history canvases that filled her large surburban home more so than by Stella and Miriam themselves? Stella and Miriam were both expressionists although Stella’s work was less filled with angst than Miriam’s, more poignant, almost verging on the sentimental. Miriam’s painting looked backward to the late nineteenth century of Van Gogh as well as mid twentieth century Bacon whereas Stella’s was firmly grounded in Ab Ex in spite of the fact that she cast nineteenth century object d’art and leather embossed books.
I have always gotten more from a body of work, its ambitious ideals and beliefs, rather than the personality, whether defensive or not, problematic or not, of the creator. If I respected the body of work I could easily forgive the personal weaknesses of the artist. If I did not respect the work I could not easily forgive an artist’s personal flaws. Artistic greatness redeemed one as it allowed me to transport myself into an introspective, ethereal realm, whether viewing my painting, Stella’s installations, Miriam’s canvases or an artist I was dealing with at work. Serious viewing of art results in forgiveness for the self absorption needed to create, for overly critical perceptions of one artist to another, for personal weaknesses.