I’m still working. I’m working furiously, yet also precariously, because I’m responding to the foundation you laid more than fifty years ago, yet I am working now in a time when earnestness and passion are being challenged—challenged by what I believe to be vapid and silly illustration.
I’m fervently continuing your heart felt aesthetic, trying to maintain its relevance to today. Yes, I’m still working. I am still working.
I attended art school in the early 1970s when my professors did not believe in teaching technique, concentrating solely on visual philosophy, I say today-- on the prevailing Minimalist and Conceptual philosophies of the previous decade, without giving us a firm awareness of the 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, de Kooning were trained to do. In fact I didn’t render at all. But then you, deKooning, 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 more than twenty years earlier. But, Mr. de Kooning, I’ve been working for thirty seven years. Today I met a younger woman who stopped working. 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 different for each artist, each unique family background, each delicate psychology? Yet, nonetheless, in spite of my own flawed emotional makeup at times , I’m still working. As you know, Mr. de Kooning, it is not easy.
Did you read Sartre and Camus? I haven’t in some time. From my beginnings as a teenage art student in the mid sixties, I loved and respected the abstract expressionists more than most other artists. 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 in Hoboken where you used to live and for the past twenty four years in Jersey City. 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 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, 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 good shirts I had 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 with acrylic and 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 intangible, my psychological response to society as well as myself. 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 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 at art school. I had learned how to think and to see but had not yet been employed using those talents.
At age fifty four I am still working against the fashion of the day, Mr. de Kooning. May I call you Bill like the painter Miriam Beerman has at times? 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 from the depths of my sometimes anxiety ridden, sometimes calm self. 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 thirty seven years of working.
But before I end this letter, I’d like to tell you something about my time in Hoboken. Twenty seven years ago when I saw or spoke to someone from my art student years, usually while walking on Washington Street, Hoboken’s business thoroughfare that runs north/south parallel to the Hudson River, 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. 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 practicing 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 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 the New York 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 anything about her life. I was quite alone. I yearned for female support. I did see a Jackie Windsor show in Soho on a trip Alfred students took to New York City but her work was too minimal and too sculptural for me to be intrigued. However, I looked at both 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. The critical powers, older upper class students, felt that your search, Bill, wasn’t valid for me–it was considered wrong and incorrect for a young woman, really a girl, to be transfixed by your Woman series. I was expected to think that you were sexist and a woman hater. 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, both spiritual and bodily. Organs and life forms are profound. They are our foundation. I see flesh with idea. I see time and history in your anatomy.
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 spiritual fulfillment of painting. In 1981, six years out of Alfred, new to Hoboken after two years in New York City, I didn’t paint everyday. 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 thought that my own work would be represented in a gallery or museum one day, even though I was aware of my strength as an artist. 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 nude model at the Art Student’s League on 57th street my first year in the city while also working part time weekends and evenings supervising the 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 in that vein. I wanted to change the tenor of the art world by creating works which proved that the beliefs of the abstract expressionist painter were still relevant to 1971, twenty odd years after its dominance. I believed in the power of soulful art as a significant value of life. 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–I thought needed to convey to my viewers that individual soulfulness and external society are compatible, that the contrasting of visceral emotion and kitsch material or mass produced design describe life’s pulse, whether psychologically or more superficially. I loved the paintings by Clyfford Still, Arshile Gorky, Helen Frankenthaler, in addition to yours, I regularly visited at the Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. I felt these to be powerful works for they were imbued with soul and passion, and a fervent belief in the significance of 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 which opened up a world of thought and creativity.
Thank you, Bill. Your vision means so much to me . You give me courage to be who I am in spite of the dominant mode that I find so antagonistic to my being. I hope you have gathered by now that art is my life calling as well. I am not interested in status or wealth so important to today’s soon to be art star just out of art school. 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, in the difficult, in the abstract metaphor or symbolic object or material. I’ll write again. Would you like to see slides? 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.