I read art, looked at it, and listened about it. In an anti-aircraft battalion library hut in Osan-ni, Korea, I found only Jacques Maritain’s “Art and Poetry.” It was rough going. After buying a pair of Georges Rouault’s prints from his “Miserere et Guerre,” I wrote an American fan letter to the aging master. He answered touchingly with a poem. On a Saturday afternoon in the office at the Hansa Gallery, where a generation of new New York art was being born, Dick Bellamy, Ivan Karp, George Segal, and Allan Kaprow carried on a “bull session” before me.
Since leaving high school, I had done little drawing and no painting until, in 1955, while loitering in Korea with an army of occupation, I became so restless in mind that I sought out another reluctant soldier, an Army private from Special Services, who had studied painting in Oberlin College and would not bathe for four days in a row as some sort of more personal esthetic assertion. I assisted him in setting up a regular class session in figure drawing. Within a few weeks, our program was suspended by an Army major whose obscene eyes saw the probability of a possibility of an unmanly, immoral disclosure in the posing of fellow G.I.’s stripped to the waist while leaning on brooms.
Fortunately, I stopped formal instruction in art after four inconclusive sessions at the Hans Hoffman School in 1956. Following that discouraging experience, my drawing had the considered criticism of a new “American” painter, Albert Urban, a gentle unreconstructed pariah, who, as a young man, had had his work acclaimed in Hitler’s museum for “degenerate” art. I never worked in his studio, which he kept as his barred sanctuary daily from nine to five, but on several evenings, weeks apart, we sat for hours with his wife, Reva, in their spacious West Tenth Street apartment, pouring over my misdirected papers.
After scanning my first batch of divers expression, Albert sighed, settled back in his easy chair, lighted his pipe and, for a while, distractedly puffed smoke through his wiry black mustache. When he finally spoke, he hesitantly suggested that I might better become a scholar—a religious art historian at that.
I was secretly shocked and grieved by Albert’s lack of recognition. In the months that followed, I fervently poured out more hundreds of bad drawings and a few horrid aspirations in oil on canvas paper and canvas board which I supposed must be what paintings were like. Albert, with immense tolerance, kept looking and talking but he could not be encouraging.
On a sudden, dear Albert suffered a heart attack and died on his living room floor. I was entirely on my own again. This was 1958.
During this time, I took survey courses in art history and Ralph Mayer’s “Tools and Materials” program for two semesters at Columbia University.
These classes with Mr. Mayer put me in touch with a variety of antique artistic modes of “permanent painting” which no one will ever use again. In the second semester, I glazed a still-life too intensely and got a thin “B” for the effort.
In February 1959, with my personal affairs in a tangle, I burst out of Columbia University into a belated full-time affair with art. At first, I was on my own with everybody else’s work—Guston’s, Motherwell’s, Kline’s, Gorky’s, Pollock’s, Rothko’s, Jasper Johns’ and “What have you seen in the new Art News?”
My friend, Ward Jackson, used to send me inspirational postcards bearing reproductions of ten year old Motherwell paintings which looked strikingly like my last week’s work, but nevertheless, I persisted because, by then, I knew no other way to live. My work was always on my mind.
For a year or more, I celebrated just about anything: crude Cezanne’s self-portrait mask ennobled in a whirl of charcoal; drab tenements on the waterfront profiled in oil—sienna, umber, ochre, black and white; freight trains through the rain, rendered by smears of fingered ink; misspent ejaculations of watercolor and ink on their own; the “Song of Songs” in my own script, embraced by tender washes that spoke of giving breasts in the field in morning light; a Luis Lozano Olive Oil tin found flattened in the gutter disclosed as itself fastened to a golden box marked, “mira, mira.”
By now, I had established my first studio, a sunny railroad flat on Washington Street in the midst of the old wholesale meat market on Manhattan’s West Side below Fourteenth Street, and near the Hudson River waterfront. (I have always lived by large bodies of water. I love their breadth in constant flux.)
This place quickly grew chock full of curiosities—a dance of strung out objects—arranged like a strange, dirty, cumulative composition but with a random look. All the materials displayed there were found in my wanderings along the waterfront.