I was in the Met a week ago for a large current show called “The Pictures Generation.” It is not much publicized though it is underwritten by Rockefeller style promoters of the arts. It is a sweeping collection of works by a group of young artists who from the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties were bringing the image back into art in some direct and some very indirect ways – the image having been all but banned by grey, cold critics, who had decided everything had to fit into one of only two acceptable current trends – conceptualism and minimalism. And it was not that the critics now favored vigorous abstract work but rather that they had gotten everything down to what would exist in a critic’s paradise – no images, and no real emotion either. I was furious and sad.
Minimalism and conceptualism hogged all space for new shows at the Modern, and hogged the galleries too, in the mid-seventies when I returned from my latest stay abroad, this last one four uncomfortable years in the Middle East, which, despite some of the sort of adventure I sought, had become a kind of hell for me and not totally because my drinking was more out of hand than ever. I was fed up with so many of the people there with whom I had been involved, particularly in Lebanon which was filled with foreign journalists who had taken on all the worst characteristics – awkward pretentiousness and quite flagrant anti-Semitism.
What I really wanted in coming back was to get in touch with what I had been missing. But back in New York now I found myself as out of sync with the people I had known there as I was with minimalism and conceptualism. Friends from when first in the city were letting their careers define them. Especially the lawyers, who were now embalmed as lawyers, especially the writers as they began to find publishers. As out of sync with these liberal people who had been my friends in past years as I was recently out of sync with the right-wing expatriates in Beirut. And it made me wonder if I had not always been out of sync, whether when growing up in Connecticut and New Hampshire or when roaming most of the world’s continents.
For economy’s sake, I when I got back in the mid-seventies I went to live in a seedy shared apartment whose rooms went mainly to Maoists, Trotskyists, Trotskyites Anarchists and Stalinists, none of which I was. I had no girl friend to give me definition, only occasional cold one-night, or less, encounters. And I felt more trapped than ever by lack of money. Everything in my life seemed to be under a blanket of depression.
I did get up each day, and I did do the necessary footwork to get advance money two new book contracts, which I secretly suspected would not save me. I developed some new interests and like everyone else in the city discovered a latent passion for classic dance, alternating between Suzanne Farrell and Gelsey Kirkland, Balanchine and the American Ballet Theater, with side trips to the Taylor and other modern troupes. I was in an out of Washington doing research for one of the books, which took me to the sad old State Department, a vacant place in what should be a fascinating area. It is true I was meeting all sorts of people in New York and Washington and during brief research forays abroad, mainly because I had my book contracts, which did not stop my drinking from becoming, more than ever, blackout drinking. I was getting bills form Bellevue for having been taken there in a blackout and patched up for some happening that I did not remember.
One of the things I had missed most when away was being in touch with what was happening in art. Visual art had been a part of my happiest times in the city and in Europe too, from the late fifties when I was with this very appealing girlfriend – we were also in Greece together – who was an action painter.
But I had lost touch. And I did not find anything to connect to. I totally missed – as blind perhaps as a critic to what was around me – what was billed in the Met now, 35 years later, as the Pictures Generation. The show takes up many gallery rooms but is not listed on the banners at the front; a man taking entrance money was excited by it, but it was hard to find any signs pointing to it. Yet the moment I stepped into those rooms (located on the way to the 19th century rooms) I found myself in what seemed like a completely familiar, if never before seen, world – something that sometimes happens with a piece of music or a painting or with written evocations of lives. An array here of different approaches by a great many artists working at that mid-seventies time – from a driven young woman’s recording of herself on film to exuberant sketches. I went to see it because I know an extraordinary talented Woodstock guy who is in it, Paul McMahon, who lives now in the same town where I have lived, and even felt connected, for more than 20 years. His work in the show has joy in it – light-hearted and also moving, ranging from writing on maudlin picture postcards to pastel works done on front pages of the Times, with several stops in between, including an inviting poster, “Masters of Love,” and a series of small paintings in which he did red polka dots.
It felt walking through this show that I was in that world I had dreamt of back in the seventies, a world I could not join, did not even find, when I was back looking for something solid after years of disconnection in odd places. That world of people who knew each other, were working together, and were on a mission, rejecting hack work, taking art out of the hands of the linear hecklers and taking it right up to the often precarious edge of life. The sort of group to which it seemed in the mid-seventies that, despite what I believed, I could never really belong.