I thought I’d send you these reminiscences about Stella . As teaching was such an important part of your life, I’m sure that your students were important to you and that you still care about them and their ouevres. And as I’m a contemporary painter continuing to hew my own path and paint emotionally, I wanted to introduce more about my life with Stella to you.
“Make it look easy” Stella said when looking at one of my transparencies. Was that your phrase?–I always thought that it was. I vividly remember the long red coat I was wearing the day I met Stella at her home in the Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd street in New York City twenty odd years ago. Clothes were worn symbolically back then for I had two roles I played in the art world–I was a part time gallery curator at Rutgers University in Newark as well as a part time painter with a studio in Jersey City. When I was representing Rutgers, I wore a skirt and blouse to let the artist I was about to meet know that I was seriously looking at their work, in spite of the fact that I was a practicing artist myself. When working for Rutgers I was not paint splattered. I thought that the artists I visited would immediately know because of my conservative and clean clothes that I was there to consider only their work and that I had left behind my concerns with my own painting. Of course one never leaves one’s issues behind, whether those of one’s painting or one’s psychology. At age 30 I hadn’t yet begun to be intimidated by what I believed was a dress code for New York artists-- as intimidated as I would be in my forties. I looked much like the academics on campus rather than a young aspiring artist. I still followed my western New York instincts and mixed colors in much the same way as I did in high school or today on the canvas. I chose the few pieces of clothing I had because I liked color in much the same way I chose cadmium orange and red and cobalt blue when at Pearl Paint, New York Central or Utrecht Linens. My clothes were wide ranging in their palette just like my work I was not dressing in thrift shop clothes anymore. My color instinct ran deep, whether painting or shopping.
I have always felt that I was in touch with Stella’s soul more so when gazing at her works than when having a conversation with her. Was that because she had a history of emotional conflicts with people, both friends and family as well as with artists more successful than she that she did not personally know? Yet her works overpowered her defenses. They are just soul bared. Made with a lyrical and light hearted touch, unlike her dominant and somewhat ironic personality. But the personality of one’s artwork and oneself is often opposite one another. Her installations are magnificent; stripped of her flaws and inconsistencies. When Stella created an installation she reached a state that could not be touched and that was beyond my criticism. It is a state of knowing. To achieve that state was my goal as a young painter. I yearned to create works that were both personal and impersonal simultaneously. I yearned to create objects that provoked a visceral, gritty meditative state in the viewer. And that still is my goal today. Joy resulted after months of turmoil and anxiety were transformed into objects of visual quality and spirituality.
To get to the living room environment of Stella’s Chelsea Hotel home, we had to walk by the smallest kitchen I had ever seen down a narrow hallway densely installed with her artwork and old photographs. The living room was mesmerizing, as mesmerizing as Stella herself. The living room had an oriental rug on the floor with two old upholstered chairs facing a library wall installation. Behind the couch on the 23rd street side of the room was a white wall five foot high on top of which stood a long row of what Stella called wedding books and prenuptial agreements. The books were all made out of solid polyester resin and were opaque(wedding book) as well as translucent,(prenuptial agreement) looking almost like glass when the sun streamed into the apartment. The books were purely visual objects. They had no words. As I relayed in my first letter to you, Mr. Hofmann, Stella said repeatedly that “words lie” but ironically she chose to make installations of libraries nonetheless. There were paintings that were precursors of Abstract Expressionism on the east wall hung surrounded by her signature polyester resin sculptures. The couch faced a major work, Details of a Lost Library, which was the width of the south living room wall–about fifteen feet. Details of a Lost Library was poignant and nostalgic while also exerting a strong formal presence. It was evident that Stella was firmly grounded in the plastic laws of painting you upheld and preached, Mr. Hofmann , and made decisions based on color and gesture, line, opacity and transparency. The west wall of the living room had another large installation of books, though it did not extend to the floor as Details... did. Stella was 63 or 64–about thirty-three years older than I was. I sat on her soft couch and looked at her obsessive and over-crowded environment with awe and respect. I was excited and inspired. The Filmmaker had not prepared me for her visionary environment. I was transfixed and felt an overwhelming surge of a deep aesthetic love for this unpretentious creator of visions.
Your aesthetics, Mr Hoffman, are deeply invested in Stella’s idiosyncratic work . Her work shares affinities with Edward Kienholz of almost fifty years ago as well. Her library shelves push and pull, moving formally and idiosyncratically from top to bottom shelf, allowing the mind to rest before being pushed onward through the visual and emotional journey. Each individual book pushes and pulls within the small and intimate frame of the book.
I am very happy to have known a student of yours. Had I known that her way of responding to my painting had been influenced by your teaching methods, I would not have been as puzzled by her frenzied actions in my studio. I would have realized that her response was grounded in your school of painting, with an approach to looking not of my time. I’ll write again soon. Would you please send a laser print of work you are currently supporting. Or a snap shot. Many thanks.