Dear Amedeo Modigliani
Dear Amedeo Modigliani,
I’ve seen two retrospectives of yours–the first at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo and the second at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan. Your figures–so fragile and emotional, beautiful and poignant, are still with me. As a young artist just graduated from SAIC and new to NYC I modeled nude–not for a master like you but at Art Students League on 57th street. I don’t think there are any poignant images of me at 26. I modeled mornings from 8:30 am - 12:30 pm or so. On Wednesdays I supervised volunteers at the American Museum of Natural History till 9 pm. On days I was not painting during the afternoon I would go to galleries on 57th street, Madison Avenue or walk up 5th Avenue to the Frick Collection or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I also went to MOMA. I loved Picasso’s Guernica. I especially loved Brancusi’s installation of several works on a large platform.
I had begun to model in the nude while an undergraduate student at Alfred University. Because I was so idealistic about striving to be an artist I never believed that any of the students would look at me sexually. I thought of myself as a problem to be tackled, and didn’t focus on being undressed in front of strangers. My first day of nude modeling at The Art Students League was also my first experience of morning rush hour on the subway. I was so petrified by the crowded car that I froze right in front of the open doors. And just stared inside at the crowd. A tall black man near the door pulled me in so that I wasn’t blocking the entrance. After what felt like quite a long time, I managed to shyly thank him for his quick thinking but was overwhelmed by the sardine like environment of the early morning subway the whole ride to 57th street. This was my New York welcome. My insecurities about adjusting to New York were affecting my self-esteem. The subway was much more frightening to me than posing in the nude. Actually, I’ve never completely gotten used to the subway. I rode the elevated train in Chicago and did not know whether I would be able to live comfortably in New York City.
While modeling at Alfred University I generally took short poses for one or two minute gesture drawings but at The Art Students League the teachers draped me in patterned materials and set me in front of wall papered walls for hour long poses. If I took a break from the pose I had to remember it. It was a challenge to pose for as long as I possibly could before my arms and legs fell asleep. Modeling is boring. Some days each minute felt excruciatingly long. I usually daydreamed about my work back in my small studio and felt much more avant-garde than the students who were painting those Matisse-like paintings. Occasionally the student’s works were a Modigliani. With elongated neck and a facial expression oozing quiet sentiment. I saw very little originality of vision during my year of modeling. With all the fabric draped over me, with only partial nudity I was never embarrassed. I felt that the students were sincerely involved with trying to capture me. I didn’t worry about being nude at the time but today I wouldn’t undress. But then again, I now carry the extra weight of an older woman. While I always liked and responded to the heavy-set models as a student, today I have no desire to be a heavy model myself. Assuming challenging poses that aggressed upon the art student because of the foreshortening was fun because I thought it would result in more abstract paintings. I began to model in September soon after arriving in NYC. By the time winter arrived, modeling became more uncomfortable in that the classrooms were cold and drafty. Posing for four hours without any clothes was hard. The teachers would sometimes find heaters but even that was not always enough to make me comfortable. Art Students League classes started early so that I had the afternoons for painting, something I did not have when I started working full time. There were several ballet dancers who modeled. Their posture was rim rod straight. I always thought that because of their formal poses they were less interesting than the rest of us who were not dancers. Modeling was a steady income for me and allowed me to rent an apartment and buy my art supplies. I only bought a small bag of paints and medium each trip to the supply store. I never thought that there was a divide between the figurative art students at the League and myself–an abstract painter. But Modigliani–in Chelsea these days I feel the divide.