Through the new New York Academy and an anatomy professor with the ominous name Elliot Goldfinger I got to go to a dissection. I was immersed in anatomy then - every day in the Michael Burban anatomy and drawing class up at the Art Students League, and in other studio classes at Parsons and Visual Arts and Cooper Union, and the National Academy and with the hard-core anatomists at the new New York Academy, and in the studio of a highly skilled and friendly sculptor named David Klass, where at an armature I recreated all the main bones of the body's skeleton and then put on all the important muscles, with emphasis on those that show in surface form.
I did not quite realize how hard I would be hit by seeing actual human bodies carved up. When the doors to the dissection room opened, there waiting for us was Elliot Goldfinger, whose face always had a fiendish grin on it, in the same manner as the Dick Cheney face always has a nasty lop-sided scowl - there was Elliot grinning in a white coat that I don't think was really streaked with blood but certainly seemed that way, and beside him as in a horror movie in which the good people turn out to be monsters too - there beside him in a similar white coat was nice David Klass, whose sister had once been married to Elliot. They had all been arrested once for boiling the flesh off a horse in a Brooklyn backyard.
And I followed them in now and there were the two blackened cadavers homeless men who had been found dead on a street and whom nobody had claimed, one of them laid out on a gurney, the other hanging form the ceiling by a chain bolted to the top of his head. And there were the bones and muscles and ligaments just like in the anatomy books though blacker and not at all like the anatomy books because these had been actual people who had actually been carved up for the sake of education.
Late that night I stopped into a pizza place, which was up a few steps on Eighth Avenue around the corner from my bright Chelsea apartment whose walls were covered with my new life drawings. At the counter I realized it would be some time before I would eat meat again. But I had a slice with onions and peppers and was feeling better as I started down the steps. It was raining now. An Eighth Avenue bus was about to pull away from the curb in front of the pizza place. In a rear, rain-streaked window, looking right at me, eyes wide, was a very gray, mousy, agitated woman named Mildred whom I had not seen for a couple of weeks who but who had been stalking me. It was because of an entirely imaginary romance. I kept getting calls on my machine, and notes in my mail box about how by not loving her I was taking away her life. With the implication she could retaliate. I hardly knew the woman, had met her only in a group of people. And I really had thought my life was in danger. And somehow it seemed fitting that I should go from these disrespected cadavers to the agitated face in the rain in a back bus window.
And it was a kind of a punctuation point to this time when I, starting late, was totally immersed in art the schools, the private drawing sessions, night and day looking at skeletons and charts but drawing flesh and blood people, most of them women, who reminded me of women I had known in real life, none of them reminding me of Mildred, though Mildred in the bus window reminded me that there was flesh and bone behind the diagrams, and behind the mostly pretty girls who modeled at the Art Students League and the Salmagundi Club and the basement place in Soho where there was life drawing practically around the clock the women in these and all the other studios I frequented, and also the women and men in the paintings and sculptures I stared at in the museums, and men and women behind even the abstractions that I liked too even as I spent my days in the traditional artistic formation phase of drawing with exactitude from life behind the art works and the models there were also the Mildreds, and there were also the blackened peeled-back skin and insides of vagrant homeless men.
It was not just because I wanted to do pretty pictures of pretty girls that in this time 20 years ago I had stopped my writing - which had come to seem all too predictable - in favor of visual images. And now I was learning again, as if young and unformed again, learning again crucial things for which I did not yet have worlds.
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Tuesday, May 8, 2007
So on a clear, breezy day in early spring we met on the grass between the opening in a wall that led to Columbus Circle and a large boulder which suspected Yuppies in fancy mountaineering gear were using for mountain climbing practice. And in my head there was a picture, and then a voice-over. Here I am just like one of those great artist guys in the Manet painting, here on the grass in springtime with an artist's model, who is dressed at this moment, unlike the Manet one, but who had no clothes at all the last time I saw her, which was ten minutes ago on the second floor in the League building.
As I walked through the opening, I heard in my head the voice of my first drawing teacher David Dewey - a full years ago when, amazingly I was just beginning saying you have to have the feel of what you draw. Then words that I had been hearing for weeks about how it is always a good idea to go up to whatever you are about to draw and run your fingers over it. Which each time made me smile, in this time of traditional art studies now when my subjects were usually naked women. And it made me sad, for I lived alone now.
We had brought sandwiches. She was older than most of the models at the League, older but smoother, and she looked very young right now. There was a cool breeze and she wore a jogging costume zipped up to the pit of her neck.
I was more older than most the serious students than she was older than most of the models but she had this smile that made her seem charmingly conspiratorial. It was all part of this new life of mine in art. Like two children taking pleasure from joining forces to get away with something.
We had to get back for afternoon classes, but we decided we¹d meet and do
something together on the weekend. The Brooklyn Museum, I suggested. She said she'd never been there, and didn¹t know much about art even though she worked as a modal at the League. As she spoke she smiled widely, then bit into her ham sandwich in the manner of a born carnivore. Then she was saying that until a few years ago she'd never been to the opera - but then someone took her to see Tosca at the Met and she'd responded so strongly that ever since she had been going to the opera every chance she could get.
Hm, I thought. Maybe I would introduce her to the world of art. Um. Pygmalion. Could I handle the responsibility? A serious question. Me as Professor Higgins, and she as a more full-bodied Audrey Hepburn.
And suddenly running through my mind were visions of people and places I had walked away from. Anifiotika and Sunnie, and Thunburi and Sunisar, and London and that girl from Hong Kong.
And these visions were pushed aside as I decided in my mind that she was more like the fine naked lady on the grass in that mysterious Giorgione painting than she was like Manet's less mysterious naked picnicker.
And discomfort covered me like a wet blanket. For it felt like in my head I was writing fiction.
Monday, May 7, 2007
It all seemed strange, that retreat weekend with the unexplained empty casket, the crackling radio turned to a band used by river pilots on the Hudson, the cherubic leader talking inner child theory and promoting Frost and Auden and then reading peculiar poetry of his own. And the people who kept losing it, screaming at each other or beating a rubber figure of Mickey Mouse with a baseball bat - and then my realizing, in light of this inner child stuff, that despite all I had done, I still had unfinished business with the people and places of my past.
Yes, I had just been to Italy to look and look and look at a point in what I was doing in drawing and painting when it had become absolutely crucial to get to Italy and see the work of the great masters, and I got them all in, from Giotto to Raphael, a matter of great urgency to connect with these works in their natural context. And yes, I had just settled in Woodstock, in a place surrounded by woods, a studio that rose almost two stories and a bedroom with a skylight directly overhead where birds flew over every other time I opened my eyes. And yes, I had felt a new kind of fear for woods had been there in my childhood, while the many wars I had known - Haiti to Laos to Angola to Lebanon - had been safe in that what I saw and survived had been in cities, and cities were adult territory.
And yes, I had just taken what would once have seemed a preposterous step, leading to membership in the Catholic church because there was something I needed and Teilard de Chardin and Thomas Merton and Daniel Berrigan - and certain liberation theology priests and nuns I had encountered in Managua and Borneo and Taipei and Manila - had something I could connect with in just as thorough a way as I had connected with Piero della Francesca, Fra Angelico, Alberti and Ghilberti and Fillippo Lippi. In apite of all the horrors of religious war and pedophilia and a right-wing Polish pope who was trying to turn back the clock - despite all this, it seemed important to me that it was not mere coincidence that Teilard and Merton and the Berrigan brothers - and so many of the great living liberation figures in so many of the dangerous places I loved - were Catholic. And anyway that logical part was such a small part of it all as to hardly count.
So it did not seem strange to me that that I should give this roly poly retreat leader with his coffin and his radio and odd poetry, the benefit of all doubts, sensible as the doubts seemed. Not knowing why the river boat radio was on, or what the casket was doing there, or what these people were doing clutching their stuffed animals - that made it the more enticing. Things for which I had no boxes. No way to wrap them up. Being ready for whatever might follow. And most of these people here were in couples and seemed to stepping into the unknown together, which was wonderfully astounding. The cherubic leader would appear to some to be kind of silly, maybe, but what if I had run in recent years the first time I came upon a silly theologian or a vicious painting teacher?
And anyway I was in a strong position, I thought, since chaos seemed farther away than it had ever been.
I did not need this man to tell me what was wrong with where I came from, and I did not need him for spiritual advice or uplift, or what was and what was not writing. And although he was amusing, so was I and so were most of the people I knew.
In the month after the weekend I went to see him, thinking he had something I needed. And for some time he did. And I had no sense of when he was lying.
It seemed an important discovery that after all I had done in recent years to
shed what until these recent years I had thought of as the slimmest of illusions - illusions about family and what had at first been home - and about who I was and about the desirability of not even thinking about childhood - It seemed important that in this big airy retreat room looking out and down from a hilltop to the Hudson River at one of its widest bends - It seemed important that I could be so moved following this most trite of all conventional exercises - this one that went "Write a letter to yourself as a child." And, walking in the woods that flow down from this hilltop, I was suddenly asking myself - asking this child in the distant foggy past and myself in this present in which so much had been opening after so many illusions were shed.
It seemed important that from out of nowhere I was asking myself what had become of the distant past version of myself - asking questions to which I knew the answer - the ultimate one that went into my notebook in the woods and made me tear up was, "Did you have pets?"
Did you have lovers was another - for which I had facile answers - but the "Did you have pets?" was the one that made me realize that - despite all the work I had done, all the life that had been opening up for me, there was still unfinished business with the people and places of what so clearly now - though it had not always been clear - had been a dark and dangerous childhood, a dank prison from which I might never have escaped.
And here was something new for me here in this room which contained an open, if empty, casket, a real one brought in before the weekend by an actual mortician who was related to the retreat house's director
And constantly in the background was the static and occasional ship-to-shore
and ship-to-ship chatter on a radio band used by captains and pilots on the Hudson.
The radio belonged to this cherubic man - a roly poly man with steely if twinkling, eyes, dressed, as he always would be, in what looked to me like L.L. Bean hiking clothes worn by someone who wished he were not too old to buy his clothes at the official Boy Scout store, this roly poly man who was the leader here this weekend and never explained the open casket or why we should hear the talk that was sometimes coming from boats down below - No words about either - except to periodically insist that everyone go to the windows to see a barge.
How wonderful, I kept telling myself. How non-linear. And I told it to myself again when I nearly cried again inside the room when I decided to participate and read aloud the sketchy writing I'd done in the woods. I wanted to be a part of this crowd.
So I read what I had written and the roly poly leader looked me in the eye and said, "See, you're writing again."
How wonderful, though this was not writing. This was putting something in place. I had known since encounters with measured men way back in a cold college English department that real writing, as opposed to what interested those men, involves recreating scenes and stories, bringing real people to life. That's when things happen and discovery comes - not from starting with neat conclusions and writing into your conclusions. I was still angry to discover that people who devoted their lives to literature hated real writing. I knew that if you start with conclusions you are doing nothing that a dull-witted critic or English instructor could not do. And as I thought these thoughts I realized how alone I had been in
my views, rarely put into written words, about the horrors of linear thinking.
I was a painter now, and sometimes a sculptor. To sit in this room and listen to this cherub put a false label on me, to endure this and actually feel good about something, somewhere - feel good in my determination to take care of the old business that had just surfaced - it made no sense in any linear way that this should make me feel good.
Still, it was nice of him to say I was writing, for he seemed to believe that such was a good thing. For me the writing itself was not something good. For at this time I was rid of writing forever. I was letting what I needed to know come to me as in dreams, as in suddenly coming upon an abandoned memory. This was happening in drawing and painting and sometimes with clay. I still carried notebooks and made notes. That did-you-have-pets line could easily have come into one of my earlier notebook ramblings in this non-writing time. But it did not constitute what I considered real writing then, and it was not writing now. And although I felt strangely comfortable here, I was also thinking that when this guy talks about me he is saying things that have nothing to do with me.
Non-linear, I kept repeating to myself as if all my life I had been trying to get beyond what had made me a champion debater when I was 16. I was taking great pleasure in the parts to the weekend that made the least sense - Janet swearing at her husband Tim - who was the only retreatant I knew from the outside world - shouting at him about an affair he had had, and I could tell she never did get the whole story. She threw a large teddy bear at him - and then she had her angry eye on other stuffed animals - a lot of people here had brought stuffed animals - and then she seemed about to leap on him. And then Harold stepped into the center of the room, put on a baseball cap with the brim to the back, turned a straight-back chair around so he could straddle it, looked at each of us, face to face, and started to cry because, he said, he was scared about his wife's pregnancy, and then she was there too, oversize in jeans, cradling him as he cried. And then another guy, Elliot, read a poem about the family he had come from, whose every member had the ability to fart good smelling farts - and everyone was too good looking - reading this while beside him was his extremely pretty young wive.
Then we were all watching videos of the hazy PBS family systems motivational speaker John Bradshaw, rushing from point to point with a Texas accent but in a feathery way - so light-weight compared to our leader, who had brought the Bradshaw videos but did not endorse them
The leader then read peculiar poems of his own - one about a slave master, and another other about the joy of writing in shit on the walls of an outhouse.
How wonderful. How non-linear.
What bad poetry, yet there was something admirable in that nothing was explained. And the leader's philosophy backed up so much I had discovered in recent years about the danger for me of somehow living out the sad empty life that my family had planned for me - threatened by it even when off on love affairs and adventures.
All in all, this seemed a fine weekend.
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
Since there was always something doing at that time - all the comings and goings in my bright place in Chelsea where I drew and painted, and in all the open drawing studios around town, and the meetings and the classes....
It was the only time in my more than 50 years, with the possible exception of a brief time in English classes in my teens, that I had seen any appeal to anything that went on in a classroom, could see anything in a classroom that I could not get better from books this time now in these studios with the models and the skeletons and often formidable instructor/artists who drew and painted alongside you - the first time I every saw why anyone would want to be in any kind of school.
In Barbara Adrian¹s evening class at the League, it turned out a cheerful red-headed model was a Julliard student who aspired to opera and musical theater. In one 20-minute pose she sang Mozart, and in another stood winsomely holding onto a suitcase while doing a full scene from Pal Joey.
One night I drew in the Adrian class at an easel beside that of my favorite actor, Peter Falk, who spent his days at the League when he was not on the coast making movies. The afternoon of the first night he came he had just returned from California, and so kept dashing around the big old French Renaissance building, checking everything, rushing up and down the stairways, snooping out each studio. He was known to cause near violent scenes if an instructor failed to show or was even late, both being rare here - which was just the opposite of student reaction I knew until thirty years back when I had decided to never enter a classroom again.
Life had never been more full, this time drawing and painting, which I had not known I could do, this time freed not just from writing but from all the linear stories I had lived by, my own and those I had followed unintentionally - such as those about my very correct, overly correct, family. I was traveling into the landscape of my life - to places this year far more dangerous than anything I had known in Africa or Southeast Asia. The neo-Victorian version of an often pompous family I had maintained had changed into a story of family figures who should, I thought now, be in prison for what they had done to those who followed them, the girl, Cousin Ellen, fucked and beaten by her brother and now in a battered woman¹s shelter for which they blamed her on grounds she was too appealing - or Cousin Mary who had just hung herself, or Cousin Harry, the one who had done the sister fucking - dead in a motorcycle accident that looked like suicide too - and the drugged up ones like Cousin Martin, or the other dead ones, like Cousin Margaret, worked over so thoroughly in their Tudor house in Scarsdale and suddenly dead a year ago of sudden leukemia just as she said she wanted to die.
I thought of Margaret now, for she had been here at the League a few years back and they had said that was typical, to go to a school that had no standards. They had talked about this talented and vibrant and daring girl much, I knew, as they talked about me. And I was angry. These killers.
But I was surrounded by many other sorts of people now, different form family and different from all the colorful figures I had chosen in the past because they seemed so unlike family. It made me remember being surrounded by people in all those exotic places and feeling desperately lonely, whether in or out of marriages or less binding relationships. I wondered if perhaps I was lonely even now that everything was different and everything was changing - this happiest time I knew. A recent marriage was over. So too my affair with the photo agent Alice, and so too, before it started, with the photographer Marlene. Now I myself had art, and all these people.
Sometimes instructors suggested that before you draw an object you should run your hand over it. The implication seemed obvious that this applied to figure drawing too. Ironic, I thought, that I should be doing figure drawing at a time when I had no such relationships going.
I was thinking about this as I went through the break in the stone wall at the edge of Columbus Circle, and walked onto the lawn beside the rock hill, the lawn where, now fully clothed, she was walking.