I'm still working. I'm still working, although I am an under-known, still-emerging artist in the early years of old age. My hair is grey and my chin is no longer firm. I'm not yet a spirit or ghost though I sometimes feel like one. Childless, my art is my biology. Your Women are my biology. The biology of 20th century anguish. Your Women are my favorite ancestors. My own body of painting is my nuclear family and my extended family, my cousins and aunts, my children and grand-children. My early works are ancestors, my great aunt or great-great grandmother. My layers of oil paint are paleontological striations of geological time. And they are also human. They are thought made physical. Emotive and also palpitating.
Art is my natural world. My own painting as well as the art I embrace and make part of my own being. While I do not see glorious skies or beauteous forests daily, I do experience the abstract-scapes and marks of one of my canvases. I feel its rich impasto between my toes much like mud or sand. I walk through the image. I breathe in the color. It fills my lungs and my veins, pulsating through my system. I revel in painting. I believe a painting's surface to symbolize the life force that comprises our unique histories. I believe a painting's surface to be a film of consciousness. I think color is magnificent. It can be ugly. It can be decorative and pretty. It can be shy. It can be bold. My colors are my words. Painting seriously and communing with tough art is as profound as a religious experience that for me cuts across denominations, races and maybe even nations. It is my escape from trivia. I believe serious art to be solely about the big poetic and philosophical issues of life now.
Mr. de Kooning, forty-seven years after my freshman year of art school, I'm still working. I'm working furiously. Yet also precariously, because I respond to the foundation you laid more than sixty years ago yet am working now in a time when my earnestness and passion are being challenged by works with a vapid, silly and ironic touch that your works revealed to me to be superficial and academic, that to me are not intuitive enough to call artful. I somehow learned as a young artist, frequenting galleries and museums, to call this light touch illustration because it reads as preconceived or predetermined rather than flowing from the unconscious in a moment of creation when one forgets the rules of aesthetics and even the subject, when you are an elastic hand and mind, challenging learned techniques, disregarding visual habits and theoretical dogma. But Mr. de Kooning, has it been satisfying to send your masterpieces' s ghosts to today's art fairs? How do your oeuvre's many ghosts define superficial now? How do they recognize the significant? Was intuition your dogma and how would your ghosts define today's? Yes, just what is today's dogma? Please share your ideas with me as I am not really sure myself what today's dogma is. I realize that we all have our unique definitions of intuition or dogma but as I just said I learned what intuition was from your Women series. And by just painting. Your take on my issues with today might surprise me nonetheless. Shock me. We artists need shocks to keep our edginess. Actually, we all need challenges, artist or not, no matter the field or age.
Mr. de Kooning, I'm fervently adding to your heart felt aesthetics trying to maintain its relevance to today. I'm still working even though I attended art school in the early 1970s when my professors were not teaching much technique and concentrated solely on the prevailing Minimalist and Conceptual philosophies of the previous decade without giving us a firm awareness of the visual principles unique to our own time. I was too afraid in my teens and twenties to admit that I did not draw from life as you were trained to do. In fact, I didn't render at all. But then you gave up rendering in order to create works with pure existential power. I began as an art student in 1971 believing in your anxiety-ridden search of twenty years earlier. This month I have met two younger women who stopped working as artists. And I asked myself what determines life-long commitment to one's practice in times of little or no interest in your chosen medium or society's antagonism to one's personal beliefs? Is commitment to one's work different for each artist, each family background, each delicate psychology? Yet, nonetheless, in spite of my own imperfections, I'm still working. As you know, Mr. de Kooning, it is not easy.
Did you read Sartre and Camus? I haven't since college. But your gestures and surfaces suggest to me that you have read them. From my beginnings as a teenage art student in the mid- sixties, I loved and respected the abstract expressionists. I felt that the school of Ab Ex should outlive me, born during its dominance, and last hundreds of years. Yet I didn't consider myself to be traditional. Ab Ex was so tough and poetic, revealing complex psychologies of both creator and viewer in abstract ways. I've been painting abstractly on my own, first in New York City, then just minutes away in Hoboken where you used to live and for twenty -six years in Jersey City, the bordering city south of Hoboken, and across the Hudson River from the World Trade Center. Knowing that you had lived in Hoboken was so important to me as a poor young woman in her late twenties. It was good for my weak self-esteem. If you had lived in Hoboken so could I. It was so close to Manhattan-did it matter that Hoboken and Jersey City were in another state? I was a shy artist when in my twenties. I couldn't afford to take slides of my painting. I was earning 9,000 dollars yearly working on a National Science Foundation grant at the American Museum of Natural History on Manhattan's upper west side, as a vertebrae paleontology laboratory assistant, after my first several months in New York City earning much less than that, and I loved painting with Lascaux acrylics in spite of their exorbitant cost. I couldn't afford to buy a new pair of jeans and wore the clothes my parents gave me at Christmas. Actually, the two white polyester shirts I wore as a volunteer supervisor with long black skirts were gifts from them as well. I generally shopped at the Salvation Army, something I had been doing throughout my art school days. I was not as dedicated a painter-only painting several large pieces yearly. However, they were painstaking to paint-using disposable chopsticks, instead of brushes or palette knives, with acrylic mixed with gel medium. I believed that because I was painting with disposable chopsticks that Chinatown's frenetic pace that I loved so much with its visual excitement of the fish markets and grocery stores, dense with brightly packaged cans and jars, would somehow be imbued into my neo expressionistic paintings on plastic shower curtains. I knew abstract painting to be about the elusive, our psychological response to society as well as ourselves. I was talking about my gender and my gender's history, incorporating domestic materials in the male dominated art world I was in. I did not have a credit card and paid for my art supplies with a check. I did not eat much and did not buy many groceries or think about having well balanced meals. I never bought chicken or fish for dinner as I do today and had just one frying pan in the kitchen as well as a coffee pot. I was living the life of a starving artist without having set out to do that. It was just that I had not acquired many skills when in art school. I had learned how to think and to see but had not yet been employed using those talents.
At age 65 I am still working against the fashion of the day, Mr. de Kooning. I'm also part of your international family of those artists and connoisseurs deeply and profoundly in touch with your spirit and aesthetic soul. Thank you so much for your worldly and existential vision. Yet Bill, it does not get any easier for me to confront the daily struggle of visceral creation and thought made plastic and material after decades of working.
" Just paint" your spirit screamed at me yesterday. Your spirit is right. I feel that because I am an unknown artist painting without regard for the coolness espoused now that I have freedom as you did. I too respond to an inner conviction. A solitary endeavor usually but for paintings' ghosts, paintings I respond to and paintings I create myself. I find a profound spirituality in nature and yearn to interpret and suggest this Darwinian life force. I doubt you saw your works as figures or landscapes either. But before I end this letter, I'd like to tell you something about my time in Hoboken. Thirty- seven years ago, when I saw or spoke to someone from my art student years, usually while walking on Washington Street, Hoboken's main thoroughfare of small stores, restaurants, and pizza places, that runs north/south parallel to the Hudson River, directly across from Manhattan, after a period of not being in touch, I was asked more than once, "Are you still working?" We both understood that the life of an artist was hard. Would we continue to work? Gallery affiliation wasn't ever mentioned as we were still young and seemingly insignificant relative to the powerful art world of investment and overarching fashion and theory. Galleries were not looking to the MFA programs as they are today. Young artists had time to develop their vision and their craft. When I was asked that question I always remembered the lecture we were given my first year of art school when we students were all told that only 2% would remain involved in the art world, whether international artist, college professor, public school teacher or even art supply store clerk. I wasn't daunted by the statistics and during my undergraduate years at the SUNY College of Art and Design at Alfred University I dedicated myself to being an abstract painter following my interests and my inner voice. My male professors said that we were in a lull time for art and that my predominantly female class would very likely not have any great artists in it. They did not have any faith in our girl minds. Nor did they imagine their female students' distinguished futures. They said that they wanted us to lead the lifestyle of an artist if not actually create a body of work that contributes to world culture. They also said that we girls would have two children each and raise them rather than become important woman artists. In 1971 I felt I had to make a choice between having a family or creating a serious body of work and exhibition history, unlike today when a young woman artist can have both. In spite of this lack of confidence in my future, at eighteen and nineteen, I already believed that I would create the strongest body of work by listening to my personal beliefs and that I needn't follow the latest dominant style or fashion. I formed this independent ideal in rural upstate New York, away from New York City's art world scene, surrounded by farms nestled around small villages. I am still grateful today for those few years of unquestioned passion and my belief in limitless possibilities for my artwork despite the lack of support from the all-male faculty, despite the lack of any female artist role models besides internationally known Georgia O'Keeffe. While I was aware of Helen Frankenthaler's painting she was not a role model as I did not know enough about her life to satisfy my neediness for older serious artists to fill the role of aesthetic mothers or sisters. I did study for several weeks of my first summer at Alfred with the potter, Barbara Tiso, but I rejected the world of pottery for a life of painting so I, nonetheless, was quite alone. I yearned for female support. I was interested in a life of painting. Because of that, I looked at both painting's history as well as contemporary life for inspiration. I believed in the validity and the importance of my individual psyche and soul. Even in 1972, these were unfashionable beliefs for someone my age. Older upper-class students felt that your search, de Kooning, wasn't valid for me-it was considered wrong and incorrect for a young woman to be transfixed by your Women series. I was expected to think that you were sexist and a misogynist. But you are still speaking to me, across generations and genders. I love your mark and gesture, their passion and humanity. Their speed of intuition. I have not felt insulted by your women's wide mouths or big breasts. I have felt affirmed existentially. But I am fascinated by life forms for they speak of evolution, the intangible and the bodily. Organs and life forms are profound. They are our foundation. I see flesh with idea. I see time and history in your anatomy.
Willem, I'm still working. I'm still working, although I am an under-known, still-emerging artist in the early years of old age. My hair is gray and my chin is no longer firm. I'm not yet a spirit or ghost though I sometimes feel like one. Childless, my art is my biology. Your Women are my biology. The biology of 20th century anguish. Your Women are my favorite ancestors. My own body of painting is my nuclear family and my extended family, my cousins and aunts, my children and grand-children. My early works are ancestors, my great aunt or great-great grandmother. My layers of oil paint are historic yet are mine. They are thought made physical. Emotive and also palpitating.
Art is our natural world. I feel a work's materiality between my toes much like mud or sand. I walk through the image. I breathe in the color. It fills my lungs and my veins, pulsating through my system. I revel in painting. I believe an oil paint surface to symbolize the life force that comprises our unique histories. I believe a painting's surface to be a film of consciousness. I think color is magnificent. t can be ugly. It can be decorative and pretty. It can be shy. It can be bold. My colors are my words. Painting seriously and communing with tough art is as profound as a religious experience that for me cuts across denominations, races and maybe even nations. It is my escape from trivia. I believe serious art to be solely about the large statement.
I've wanted to create metaphors for the self since my beginnings as an art student. I went to Alfred to become a potter but almost immediately doubted that pottery could give me the deep fulfillment of painting. In 1981, six years out of Alfred, new to Hoboken after two years in New York City, I didn't paint every day. I wasn't yet a serious and committed artist with my yearly goal today of constant painting, drawing and immersion in my sculptural juxtapositions. I was more enamored with New York City's museums than the galleries and never imagined that my own work would be represented in a gallery or museum one day. I couldn't afford to drink wine with dinner and spent little time eating. Often, I would buy a gyro on the way home for my dinner or a slice of pizza. I was always telling my parents that NYC was a good place to be poor. After I began working at the American Museum of Natural History I was given complimentary admission to all other museums in the city. I was a life drawing model at the Art Students League on 57th street my first year in the city while also working part time weekends and evenings supervising the AMNH museum volunteers at the information desks.
But to backtrack, in Alfred's rolling hills, I rarely thought about the power of the Pop aesthetic or that Pop had stopped the flourishing of Abstract Expressionism, as I said, the school I most deeply respected. I didn't think about Pop in Hoboken either. I passionately believed in Abstract Expressionism's validity and importance and I yearned to create works extending and continuing anew its fervent vein while changing Ab Ex so that it spoke to my time now. I believed in abstraction as a symbol for complexity. I thought abstraction talked about the relevant without illustrating it. I loved the visual world much like others loved their religion, their families, their personal passions. I worshiped the visual. I wanted to change the tenor of the art world. I believed that the abstract expressionist painters were still important in 1971, twenty odd years after their dominance. I believed in the power of tough painting. I didn't yet understand irony--at that young age. I did not yet know that irony would be an essential element of my future work-an element I now think is needed to convey to my viewers that individual soulfulness and external society are a part of life, that the contrasting of visceral emotion and kitschy material culture describes life's pulse, whether psychologically or more superficially. I loved the paintings by Clyfford Still, Arshile Gorky, Helen Frankenthaler, in addition to yours, Willem, I regularly visited at the Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. I felt these to be powerful works for they were imbued with aesthetic soul and passion, and a firm belief in the significance of color, gestures and marks. They gave me sustenance and I identified with them as a young artist. I identify with them still today as an older artist. Since adolescence, I had accompanied my mother on her art excursions to Buffalo from our home in suburban Rochester. I continued to visit the Albright Knox Art Gallery during my college years and to deepen my love and respect for my favorite artists' works. We also visited the Memorial Art Gallery, the University of Rochester's art museum, regularly. The Memorial Art Gallery did not have my favorites of the Albright Knox but had their precursors--including a fine Arthur Dove as well as a beautiful and delicate Georgia O'Keeffe. I still visit both museums today with great anticipation, to see the sources of my beginning inspiration that opened up a world of thought and creativity.
Thank you, de Kooning. Your vision means so much to me. You give me courage to be who I am in spite of the dominant figurative mode that threatens my belief in abstraction's power. I hope you have gathered by now that art is my life calling as well. I am not interested in status or wealth. I am not an art star and most likely will never be one. I am interested in vision and compulsion, inner needs and philosophical and spiritual awareness as your oeuvre is. I see meaning in color and surface, gesture and mark. I see much meaning in the obscure, difficult metaphor. I'll write again. Woman and Bicycle's ghost invited me over for a late afternoon drink next week. Would you like me to send slides to your ghost first? I'm not very adept at sending jpegs unfortunately. Forgive me for my digression. I'll concentrate more on my time in Hoboken in my next letter and when I visit your masterpiece's ghost at the Whitney Museum of American Art on Thursday.