I'm writing to say that when I consciously saw a pink and yellow canvas of yours-at the Weatherspoon Art Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina- I immediately thought of Claire Moore's admonition to me 41 years ago against using pink and yellow together in my first graduate school critique. In spite of the fact that I had grown up regularly visiting the Albright Knox Art Gallery's Gotham News in which pink and yellow figure prominently, I had not absorbed this signature de Kooning element into my visual awareness. I did not understand what Claire Moore was saying. It seemed so arbitrary. Yet your Women series was too much of an historical milestone in American art for me to contend with. I also saw a Pollock drip painting with the colors pink and yellow across the gallery from Woman and Bicycle on Thursday when I met its ghost for a drink. Could an unknown female artist abstractly use those two colors adjacent to each other and not be derivative of de Kooning or Pollock? Well, as you saw in my photo scans and slides I am not an expressionist like you and as my painting has no basis in rendering, it is impossible for me to knowingly mimic your masterful passages. And I do not have your anxiety-ridden surfaces-I quietly contemplate when I paint. I am interested in the awestruck visceral, not woman or landscape.
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 creates community, that it's as important for humankind as the political world. Culture bridges difference. It is humanist. It is sublime. I force myself to think about politics by reading The New York Times, The Nation, or watching the News Hour. Yet I do not believe that politics and painting were a good couple. I am part of a community of artists and connoisseurs. What did my poetic, visceral metaphors for life have to do with governments and political realities? Is there also a life force in the political world-I hope so. When I think of the history of many politicians I thought of corruption ruining ideals, power rather than the heart felt values so important to my life as an artist. Painting answered and also raised profound emotional questions 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 forty 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 chopsticks I wove thin skeins of acrylic paint over one another. During business hours I spent some of my work week preparing fossils using fine tools to remove the matrix under a magnifying glass with most of the time spent making molds and casts of fossil turtle 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 my paintings were about time. I felt that viewers of my work, if patient enough, experienced filmic time when viewing my surface 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 a curatorial 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 making molds and casting fossils of the Meiolania, I resigned, and I started working at Rutgers University in Newark as a gallery assistant. . 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 several 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 theater always with fine dinners beforehand. I ate endive for the first time with Dr. Wolf preceded by filet mignon with bearnaise sauce, quite different than my usual piece of pizza or peanut butter and Progresso white clam sauce over spaghetti. I usually ordered the same entree concert after concert. Endive was my dessert. It was delicious and a luxury to a young artist as was the filet mignon. We attended the Mostly Mozart concerts for a few seasons. We listened to Emanuel Ax. I felt in touch with history when listening to the music. I learned that painting was not all of culture.
After the year of the building renovation was over I began to paint with oil paint rather than acrylic mixed with a gel medium. I started my Striation series, less figurative than my fossil turtle imagery but still related to the concept of filmic and paleontological time. However, I was building up the layers with oil and a cold wax medium 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 five big shows and five small 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 for a show in the main gallery space. I visited McNeil 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 New York Times critic Michael Brenson reviewed both McNeil and Melvin Edwards in Gallery 2 in its national section. I was ecstatic as were McNeil and Edwards.
Three years later, as an artist employed at the New Jersey State Museum, I looked for artists who embraced my catholic ethos and were the mediums for something larger and greater than themselves. Artists with whom I would develop a close bond, Stella Waitzkin (1920 - 2003) and Miriam Beerman (born 1923) were greater as artists than their position in the art world, a world provoked by the high stakes of power and wealth, a world that largely ignored them. Their bodies of work were powerful and absorbed their personal distress into visual significance, interpreted and transformed into culture, that distinguished realm of the intellect I believed in so strongly. Anxiety became visual force in both Stella's and Miriam's works as well as my own. Their work gave me much courage in my attempt to be a transmitter, a creator of visceral meaning. We three were all part of the realm that I called visual philosophy. We were visual philosophers. I was deeply satisfied with this important endeavor. We weren't creating to match our works with furniture and draperies as a visitor to my studio was interested in doing. We were all serious believers in the visually powerful, the visually necessary, in our artwork as a life mission. Though of course we felt satisfied by each acquisition gracing a home in spite of our serious, ambitious frames of mind. Yet the marketplace was secondary to my primary need of visceral visual creation.
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 society, unlike my late mother who was politically liberal, socially conservative, the mother of six and the grandmother of eight and a landscape painter. To me, her landscapes of her 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 so many artists, her personality was unlike her body of poignant landscapes. She was critical and tough while her small paintings were subtle and delicate. Was I attracted to Stella and Miriam because I rebelled against my mother and father's strict morality while still in college? 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 didn't think that they heard the internal voices of anger and 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 suburban home as much or maybe even more so than by Stella and Miriam as women? I could not imagine them separated from their bodies of work. I could not imagine them as solely women. They were great women artists. 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 being in a dialogue with 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 as much substance and emotional support from a body of work, its ambitious ideals and beliefs, as from the individual 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. Serious viewing of art results in forgiveness for the self-absorption needed to create, for overly critical perceptions of one artist to another. Nonetheless, in spite of their self-absorption, my celebrities are visual artists. My celebrities are works of art. My celebrities are visual poignancies and also tough. They are not necessarily glamorous or rich. Nor am I.