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Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man


July 30, 2006

I thought it might be interesting to walk you through a painting from beginning to end. This one began life as a drip painting called Magic that I did maybe five years ago. I should have taken a shot of it before I gessoed it over but I didn't think of it and I wasn't particularly good anyway. Still, it's hard to erase an old painting. This is of Alicia, the same young woman who was the model for the July 18 entry.

If you look closely you can see the rough surface left by the previous painting, which was the word magic dripped on the canvas hundreds of times.

The background of this painting will probably be the pub where she worked once, the Man of Kent in Hoosac Falls, N.Y.

At this point I've spent several hours, sketching in her head and figure and then starting to apply color to the face. At this point all the work was done with brushes and fingers

As I've said before it's almost magic - appropriate for this canvases considering its former subject - the way the face emerges and starts to take life.

This is the first large painting (it's about six feet high)I've undertaken in the year or so since I began the Scarlet Letter series. Compositionally I'm a little worried about the space above her head. Normally I would put the head right at the top to make her dominate the canvas. But I want to put something above, maybe shelves of liquor bottles. We'll see.


July 28, 2006

Macy's had an internet sale so I bought a pair of orange cargo shorts. Made by Polo and originally $70, they were now $25. The trouble was that the black I wanted had been sold out. The only other choice was orange. The only place I wear orange pants is to bed. But I ordered them anyway. And a T-shirt emblazoned with a heraldic eagle and the word Ireland. The package arrived. The pants, my wife said, were more salmon than orange. Maybe pink. I couldn't decide whether they looked more preppy or sissy - neither a look I consciously try for. I wore them to the Taconic High track this morning. That's where a lot of old people walk. I like it because the surface is forgiving. Before Max died I used to walk with him in the woods across from our house. But I'm not too keen on that anymore because on one woodland jaunt we came across a bear up a tree along the trail. He was coming down a hurry. The bear, and the deerflies, are the main reason I stay out of the woods in summer. And without Max the woods seem desolate.

At Taconic I regularly get walked down by young women, and middle- aged women. I'm tempted to ask them how they walk so fast but I never do. At the track this morning was a threesome I had chatted with two days earlier - a one year old in a buggy, his mother, and her father. The girl runs a mile while the grandfather pushes the baby and times her.

"What'd I do it in?" she asked him Wednesday.

"Eleven twenty five."

"That's better," she said. He agreed.

Last year I was working on breaking the 12-minute barrier in the mile. I was closing in. But I dropped running before I got there. Twelve minutes was hardly Roger Bannister territory but I was glad this young woman broke it even if I couldn't.

I caught up with her father on a bend and said hello and looked at the baby sleeping in the buggy.

"The pay's no good but the duty's nice," he said.

I know what he meant and asked him how old the baby was and he told me. "It must be nice to have some one push you," I said. By then I was past him like the middle-aged women pass me. This was my first social encounter wearing the salmon shorts. It was reassuring. I had fantasized that people wouldn't talk to a guy in a get-up like mine.

I changed into my painting clothes when I got home and worked on a painting I started the day before. It's the first large canvas I've tackled in a year. Before lunch - I eat with the guys on Fridays - I changed into the new shorts, slid on the new Guess belt I'd bought from Macy's two weeks earlier - the start of my internet shopping spree - and wondered if I'd get razed when I joined my friends.

"I bet they don't say anything," said my wife, who had razed me herself when I opened them the day before.

"Anyway, when you're 71 you can wear what you want."

She was right about them not saying anything. I was a little disappointed.


July 27, 2006

I use Level-Best. It's good stuff. Amy Podmore, a teacher, taught me about it - obliquely. Ms. Podmore is an artist on the faculty at Williams College. I saw her fascinating sculptures at a show there and was intrigued by the labels.

They had cited Level-Best as one ingredient. Level-Best, it turned out is a floor leveler. You use it to fill dips in floors before applying a finished surface. It dries fast and as hard as cement. Level-Best has to be one of the great names in the history of American branding.

Once I tried a competing brand named Henry. It worked fine, although I didn't like the color as well. But the bag of Henry's still sits in my studio, most of its 20 pounds unused. How can you use Henry when Level-Best is out there?

This is a Level-Best head. The bird in the painting Heart of Stone, shown in the June 23 entry, is made of it too. Both have a framework of thick aluminum wire and screening. This head represents Hester and is part of the Scarlet Letter series. I don't know Ms. Podmore but I like what she does with floor leveler and other materials.

Last year the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln had a show called Pretty Sweet: The Sentimental Image in Contemporary Art. I didn't see the show, but her installation, Placebo, was made of plaster casts of stuffed animals and dolls, feathers, cable - and what else. Level-Best.


July 25, 2006

Writing about Jenny Saville the other day, made me think of Sensation. That was the show that gave Rudi Guiliani fits when it opened in Brooklyn. That was in 2000. The year before I had done a piece based on Damien Hirst's shark in formaldehyde, which was part of Sensation. It was big and bright and I loved it.

So I sent a photo of it to the Brooklyn Museum. They didn't want it. At the time I was taking a class taught by Lisa Yetz at Berkshire Community College. She had asked me once, "when are you going to finish it." Last year I unrolled it and decided she was right. So I repainted the whole thing, this time using oil over the original acrylic. It's a big one, almost 10 feet wide. The model (human) was Anita McFarland. Two bears I got from a great photo book, Polar Dance by Thomas Mangelsen. The third, the one on the tricycle, I stole from David Salle.

The idea for the painting came from a newspaper photo of people watching sharks in an aquarium. One man had his little boy on his shoulders. For some reason, the people who were almost in silhouette, looked like bears to me. One thing led to another and this is the result.

In a slightly manic episode last year, I put the painting up on a billboard on the main road from Williamstown to MASS MoCA in North Adams. It advertised my summer show at Papyri Books. Important people in the art world driving to MASS MoCA I reasoned - erroneously as it turned out - would see it and go to Papyri.

Having it up last summer was a real ego trip, but an expensive one.


July 24, 2006

Some might call it theft. Some might call it appropriation. Me? I don't know what to call it. Well, actually I do call it something: Siberian Express, as opposed to Xenia Hausner's Orient Express (See my July 22 entry).

As far as I could find in my Google research, the Siberian Express has triple deckers but the Orient Express does not.

In preparation for the painting, done in 2005, I built a triple decker out of two by fours and plywood in the "Pit." The "Pit" is a geographical feature created when we built the addition to our house in 1970. It allowed us to create a room at the cellar level that opened up to the outdoors through an eight-foot sliding door. It is probably 14 feet by 20 feet.

The Pit went down a lot deeper, but was filled with gravel to bring it level with the sliding door, creating a giant dry well in the process. It's banks are covered with crown vetch, which blooms all summer, dark green Vinca and assorted wildflowers. This summer I have been using it as an extension of my studio, which is in the cellar room. My basement studio is the foundation for a joke Babbie would tell her friends when they asked how it was living with me when I retired nine years ago.

"It's OK," she would say, "I keep him in the cellar."

For my birthday, Babbie bought me a vender's canopy to give me shade in the Pit. While we were on the Cape for a week, a thunderstorm destroyed it.

Sorry to get off topic. The subjects in the painting, from top to bottom, are my granddaughter Riley Nichols, Linda Baker-Cimini and Betsy Dovydenas, with her dog Penny. Linda and Betsy are artists as well as good friends. I will show you examples of their work in future entries. I'll show you one of Riley's, too.

Anyway, I got them all together one autumn day and took about 130 photos of them in various poses. To get the composition I wanted I picked the pose of each that I thought would make the most interesting composition and spliced them together.

A sad footnote. Betsy and her husband Jonas were walking with Penny on their forested property when a brown bear approached them. Penny, the protector, barked and tried to drive the bear away. It grabbed her and she was never seen again.


July 22, 2006

Xenia Hausner is another painter who thinks big. I saw her show Heart Matters at the Forum Gallery in New York in 2001. It was a blockbuster. I love the way she shapes faces and personalities with slashes of color. She does clothes and textiles brilliantly, too.

The dramatic settings of her paintings presumably stem from her background as a set designer for theater and opera before turning to painting in 1992.

Orient Express, shown here, is 137" x 106". I stole the idea (in the art world its called appropriation) for a painting I did last year. You can see mine under the People section of this web site. Maybe I'll put it on the blog tomorrow or the next day.

Ms. Hausner, 55, an Austrian based in Berlin, is bold and powerful. More power to her.


July 21, 2006

I'm starting to feel pretty competitive about death, or should I say life. I want to outlive my wife. I want to outlive my friends. I don't want people to pick up the paper and read that I kicked the bucket at 74. That would seem like I didn't have what it takes to stay the course.

The trouble with saying this, aside from sounding foolish, is tempting fate. I didn't sign one of those things that says don't take any extraordinary measures to save me in case of an emergency.

We've hit the age where Babbie says I should tell her what I want for a funeral. (Apparently she's planning to outlive me.) I tell her I want Princess Di's, complete with the blonde who sang at Westminster Abby and the adoring crowds who threw so many flowers at the hearst the driver had to turn on the windshield wipers so he could see.

This painting is about that. I call it:

"It's My Funeral Isn't It?" That's me in the Jackson Pollack T-shirt. There's the cortege, Princess Di, my wife next to my left ear, Keira Knightly pulling the bow back, Marlon Brando, who happened to die while I was doing the painting, a burning piano, wolves, including a red one from Robert Wilson's Stations of the Cross piece at MASS MoCA, and my dog Max.

I did the painting last year. It's part of my Horner Method series. William Horner, an englishman, devised a formula in the 1800s to solve multinomial equations. The grid in the painting is based on his. It's about six feet high.

I read in the New York Times this week that I'm not the only one who wants a personalized funeral. Funeral directors are getting all sorts of unusual requests these days - like services at a favorite bar or the 18th green.

In any case, there aren't going to be many people at my service. I'm planning on outliving most of the people who might come. Besides, unless you're famous, the only way to get a great turnout is to die young.

Do I sound hard boiled? Maybe I'm faking it.


July 20, 2006

Chuck Close, another of my heroes, works big too. In 1966 when he was an art instructor at UMass in Amherst, he took black and white photos of an acquaintance. He used them as the basis for this large painting. (I only have room to show half of it.) When he was an art student, abstract expressionism was still the thing. But Close wasn't happy with the abstract work he cranked out. "The first generation abstraction expressionists suffered and after that it was a system," he said. "We didn't have tortured, anguished, alcoholic people. We were art students, for Christ sakes." He admired Rothko, Pollock and Kline but "all my heroes were dead." Another thing that bugged him, I remember reading, was that it was too easy. He wanted to do work that was hard, that would give him a sense of accomplishment. The reclining nude was the culmination of that discontent. He destroyed the first attempt. But the second, "Big Nude," was his breakthrough painting. Gone were the gestural brush stokes. Instead, he tried to duplicate the photograph using brushes, sponges, spray guns, rags, erasers, razor blades and an electric drill. Writer Jon Marmor noted, "She was attractive without being exceptional, naked rather than nude, complete with stretch marks, tan lines, and pores... The model's visible flaws were the marks of her personal distinction and Close's candor. "I was trying to be very flat-footed and effect this translation (of a photograph) and not editorialize and not crank anything up for greater effect," Close said. "But unconsciously, I couldn't help but do it." After that he focused on heads and they made him famous.


July 19, 2006

When Jenny Saville says she likes to work large, she doesn't exaggerate. Here she is in front of her painting "Plan" in a 1994 photo by Glynn Griffiths. That's a lot of flesh. Ten years later in Art in America, Carol Kino wrote about a Saville show at the Gagosian Gallery. This is what Kino said about one of the paintings (not this one):

"This woman has crammed her fleshy white body into the corner of a mirrored room, where she squats, her open cunt confounding the viewer..."

A few months later, in a letter to the editor, Glenn M. Corey, a self-described liberal, complained about the use of the C word.

"I have never seen that word used in an art-critical or art-historical context. It is a derogatory term that I think a vast majority of women detest. Such an angry word really has no place in a magazine of ths stature. And, based on the work that I have seen, it really doesn't seem appropriate to Saville's depictions of women."

None of this is important to a critical assessment of Saville. But it's an interesting footnote.

By the way, Kino didn't take Corey's letter lying down. She said:

"I pride myself on eschewing artspeak and using clear, evocative language to describe works of art. So, rather than employing some fuzzy or stilted phraseology, such as "genital organs" or "exposed vulva," I took George Orwell's famous advice and chose a single Anglo-Saxon word. "Cunt" is crystal-clear. It evokes an immediate visual image. And, most important, it has a confrontational edge which is entirely apt for Saville's work."

You can disagree with Art in America for publishing the word, but it's hard to fault Kino's contention that when Saville paints a vagina it looks like a cunt. By the way, the C word threw my spellcheck for a loop.


July 18, 2006

Speaking of portraits, here's one by Jenny Saville, a young Brit who has helped turn the art scene on it's ear. Her stuff is not just big, it's very big. And it's very, very good. There's a photo of her with one of the heavy nudes she is famous for. It towers over Saville. In a conversation with Saville in Interview in 2003, Elton John asked if she always worked large. She said:

" I like to, I like that sense of awe. I'm small, so to make something huge just fills me up. I love that ability to make something, to make marks across the surface and have the physicality of it take over my body. I like art that's not really intellectual, something that has to do with sensation."

I feel the same way. Painting people, I usually work on the face first because I love to see the faces emerge on the canvas. It's alchemy.


July 16, 2006

I took a break from the Scarlet Letter paintings today and worked on a portrait. (Not this one. It's from 2005.) Portraits make up the main body of my work. In today's art world that's a little anachronistic. I don't even like to think of myself as a portrait painter. How out of it can you get? But just like painting was dead and now isn't, portrait painting is showing signs of a comeback. Anyway, it felt good to be messing around with a face again.


July 7, 2006

Yesterday I wanted to show you a Marcia Myers' painting, but couldn't pull it off technically. To make up for it, here's one in most of its glory.

This doesn't show her work in it's amazing depth, its underlying trajectories and markings, and its mystery. For that I apologize to Ms. Myers.

This is done in fresco on linen. The fresco pieces have a hint of Mark Rothko and of ancient civilizations.

Renee H. Shea did a book on her that was published by Hudson Hills Press. It covers her career from 1982 to 2002 and has a wealth of color plates. It's called Marcia Myers / Twenty Years and it's pretty spectacular.

You can get it on and for all I know Chase Gallery in Boston, which gave her a retrospective this spring, may still have some.

Ms. Myers, I like the way you paint.


July 6, 2006

Background becomes foreground in my last dozen paintings don't have any idea how long this will last. But I'm having a good time with it. The shift started when I saw Marcia Myers' show at the Chase Gallery in Boston this spring. I had never seen her work before. The 20-year retrospective blew me away. It's brilliant.

So I did what any self-respecting painter would do - I decided to steal her technique. I bought the book about her for $50. Inspired by the ruins at Pompeii, among other things, she works in fresco on linen.

Instead of learning fresco, I decided I could do it in acrylics. Normally I use oils.

I didn't have much luck. Her work is subtle. Mine is not. I couldn't reproduce her colors, let alone anything that looked like her work. I realized she was using layer on layer of color. So I did that. But I decided to pour lots of a clear gloss acrylic material into the paint. Then I started adding metallic copper to various colors. Then I tried silver metallic. The top coat in this painting is a mix of silver and magenta. It's iridescent to boot.

At first I mounted things on my non-frescos: a bird I made (see June 23 entry) a Greek head (see July 4).

Then I stopped putting things on them. When I showed the new stuff to Riley, my 6-year-old granddaughter, who's been to all my shows, she said:

"Grier, don't you think it would be better if you had something in them?"

What do you think?

P. S. I tried to put a photo of one of Ms. Myers paintings in here but failed. My computer told me something about not having another cell for it to go in. But look her up if you get a chance.


July 4, 2006

Independence Day, the Fourth of July. Fireworks are going off all over the place. The explosions, pops, crackles and frenzied static are the amateurs doing their thing. The heavy artillery will sound later at Wahconah Park, Pittsfield's old ball park. We went to a cookout at Julie's house on Onota Lake to celebrate not just the 4th but Shannon and Paul's eighth anniversary.

I don't have firecrackers. But I do have this very red and white head of an athlete to show you. It's clay attached to painted plywood. I saw the Head of an Athlete at the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, this spring.

We went to Louis Kahn;s Kimbell and Tadao Ando's Museum of Contemporary Art with our Louisiana crew. These buildings are amazing. Tadao's pay's homage to Kahn's without slavish copying. The way Kahn uses baffles to send light spilling into the interior, humanizing the concrete is brilliant.

We went to Louis Kahn;s Kimbell and Tadao Ando's Museum of Contemporary Art with our Louisiana crew. These buildings are amazing. Tadao's pay's homage to Kahn's without slavish copying. The way Kahn uses baffles to send light spilling into the interior, humanizing the concrete is brilliant.

So is the way Tadao plays his building against water and the way he sets up surprises. You turn a corner and the city looms up in a large window. You turn another, and this time it's the art that

looms up suddenly and splendidly. You discoversmall, almost secret galleries, off the large ones. There is always something new and unexpected.

Anyway, I decided to do a piece based on the Kimbell's ancient Greek masterpiece. I'm giving you an off-kilter shot, because this red duplicates the color and glossy finish, something I wasn't able to do in the head on shots.

Now the big bang fireworks are starting and I remember sitting with my mother on the hill across from our house in Tarrytown watching fireworks. The Korean War was raging. Our kids were getting killed by the Chinese and they were freezing because they hadn't been issued winter uniforms yet. I was a kid in college. The fireworks explosions reflected in the Hudson River. I told my mother I was scared about going to war. She understood.

I failed my Army physical. The Army doctors discovered something my own doctors hadn't: the pain in my joints was arthritis. The Army didn't want me. I feel badly for the guys who had to fight there, and all the guys who suffered and died. But I'm glad I wasn't one of them.


July 1, 2006

Yesterday was my birthday. I turned 71.

I still get excited about birthdays, especially my own. We had a small, but very nice party. Shannon, Paul, Riley, Babbie,

Julie and John were there. All family. I got calls from Eric in New Hampshire and Mike and Meghan in Louisiana.

I made a big pot of chicken jambalaya the night before. For wine, I planned chablis. That was the

big thing when Babbie and I were starting out. Now you hardly ever see it. I hit the package store 45 minutes before the party. Then it dawned on me. The chablis wouldn't chill in time. Great planning.

Dinner was fun. We had wine - chardonnay - laughter and jambalaya. A winning combination. Then we had strawberry shortcake and key lime pie.

Riley stayed overnight. That was one of my best presents. I fell asleep as we sat on the sofa, watching Benji and fending off a mosquito. The only good actors, Babbie said, were the dogs.

So it was a fine birthday. Very different from Leslie's earlier in June. She got food poisoning and ended up drinking Gatorade and eating freeze-pops in an attempt to stay hydrated.

"Which was totally ineffective but surprisingly entertaining in a purely aesthetic sense," as she put it in her fascinating blog, "If you are going to puke, why not in technicolor?"

Posted, 6:31 p.m.




Seth Harwood, writer

Leslie, poet

Joe Goodwin, painter

Lisa Reinke, painter

John Mitchell, commentary

Charles Guiliano, MAVERIC, art critic

Saatchi Gallery



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