PRINT September 1979

Stealing Time: An Ontological Odyssey

IN THE 1960s, I used to write, more or less straight, about art. Then, concurrent with the “dematerialization of the art object,” I got more interested in what went on behind the art: hence the first-person essays like “Peter and The Pressure Cooker,” “The Visiting Artist,” and “Subway Orbit.” At the time, I thought this activity was an antidote to the ongoing and repugnant “de-definition” of art. Now I realize I had more in common with the forces of evaporation than I thought, for, excepting my own products, I’m drawn more toward plane rides, winos, out-of-the-way lecture halls, rollbooks, pick-up basketball games, rainy corners of cornfield campuses, failed sculptors’ shoes, and pimply faces in drawing class—as art—than art. (Les Levine just might have had something.) So, read on: a piece of writing about an artist who writes, getting tired of writing about an artist tired of writing about art.

Driven by a submarine civic reporter’s impulse to tell “the truth as I see it” (!), I’ve blunted my artist’s career with a writer’s penchant for making oneself typical: “uncommon enough to be worth writing about, but common enough to be recognizable to the audience.” A progressive art educator (video assignments in Basic Design) asked me, “Does your critical writing interfere with your own work and cause you to change or modify it?” Yes, practically all the time. That’s why my writing and knowing, albeit involuntarily, a whole lotta stuff you don’t, actually makes me much less a true artist than you are—stuck in the boondocks, working cozily with herb tea in your little studio-built-on-to-the-house, and never committing an idea to print for public examination. It’s you who has the integrity, not me. But I didn’t have the nerve, and just said, “No.”

You’ve got to keep moving fast over the surface and don’t look down. If you do, like the coyote off the cliff in the Roadrunner cartoons, you’ll hear a little “woosh” and end up at Montana State or working in a Safeway. Art is like that chasm—an open receptacle for all your mistakes. If you’re involved in teaching or writing artcrit, they eventually creep into your art. Perhaps that’s why I’m morbidly interested in bad student drawings, pretentious regional post-formalism, and restroom graffiti. (If I didn’t know it would turn out insufferably cute, I’d make my own art directly along those lines.)

I never knew it would be this tough. I never figured I’d have so damned many vested interests, that I would still feel so vulnerable, that this slate of devilish dualities—competition/introspection, depression/elation, altruism/avarice—would still be with me. Warning to young artists: ten years from now the buzz in the back of your head will be there, and it’ll still ring/razz/rasp no matter what street life has to offer, good or bad. Plan to live with the noise . . .

. . . and other garbage tumbling down the chute of your mind. My particular polutant is dialogue from imaginary English movies of the ’30s: “INSPECTOR FAVERSHAM: Ah yes, but the 12:42 train from Dover was delayed that day because of the fog, and didn’t leave until well after one. Besides, old Weatherby had the most powerful motive of all—revenge.” Or, “CLAUDIA: I understand, Bruce, I really do. But you must try to see this from my side. Try to realize what year after year in India is doing to me—without the love and comfort of my family, without the niceties of civilization I’ve come to expect from life, and without the religious values I hold so dear.” Faint, high-pitched, like 33s played at 78, winny-winny-winny, when I’m painting late at night. Recently, it formed the seeds of a punker ditty: “I’m driving my boyfriend’s car/But I’m not driving it far.”

They call this kind of splint a “froggy” because the foam rubber glued to the aluminum spine is normally amphibious green. But this one has naples yellow foam which shows the dirt, sweat and hairs plucked from my wrist by unwinding the adhesive tape. It itched, so I took it off. A basketball had slammed into my hand. The reflexes are just too damned slow for five-foot chest passes in the key from men fifteen years my junior. The doc says it needs another X-ray and the splint in place for a week. But I have to play this Sunday because the body is slightly fat and, dressing in the dark, the Levis are too tight to pull the socks on. And I can’t pull hard, either, because the thumb is sprained and accepts no pressure. Is there a day in the life of an artist when, like a kick returner who can’t dodge suicide tacklers anymore, he has to hang ’em up?

Every day is a gauntlet. I used to be able to roll outta bed and hit the freeway in five minutes—can’t manage that these days. It takes two hours to egress, and by four o’clock my blood sugar is so shot I jack up on pastries and coffee. Then I’m so wired I need a tumbler of chablis or half a joint to navigate the evening. (I have a simple test to determine whether or not I’m stoned. I think of a big problem, like having my left leg—on which was once performed a “lipoma of the groin”—amputated because of cancer. If I’m straight it scares the bejesus outta me; if I’m not, the terror turns to springtime dusk, and the veloured tunnels of narcotic fantasy are a match for downtown asphalt, income taxes, and a hole in the roof. Too ripped, however, and my reverie gets physical, hoists me by the throat and says, this time, kiddo, you might not make it back.)

First priority, nevertheless, is avoiding early mornings. Five A.M. provides the worst frissons. I press close to the sheets. Could I take it, away from the kids in New York? Answer: no, not if it’s 5:00 A.M. there, too. At six the problem narrows: never look at paintings before seven. (They always appear sideways—useless square kites, festooned with bad graphics, stacked against a wall.) Check the mail, read the newspaper, shuffle a few letters, double-check the locks, make sure the burners are off, and plunge the key into the ignition.

But I’m afraid to go crazy. One bad thought leads to another and you lose the grounding of a rational mind. If you lose your muscle tone, reputation, or money, you can, with dedication, regain them. But you can’t will back your bloody sanity. The result is clinging steadfastly to the middle way, as if it were a POW’s Code of Honor, which further results in an inability to be passionately demented in favor of a singular art—mine. (It’s easier to believe your art is the center of the world if you don’t have children.)

Four Bad Dreams About Rejection:

(1) I come in through the building’s front door, bend to retrieve the mail, and start looking for windowed envelopes with checks in them. There’s nothing for me except a great big brown envelope—a major essay returned.

(2) The phone rings in the loft’s cramped kitchen. An ex-student with a trembling, kid-like voice, says, “You don’t know me, and if you did you’d swear you never did anything bad to me. But we know what you did to Mary. So we’re coming down there, and we’re going to get you.”

(3) A matronly dealer says she’s glad to see me. In the gallery’s foyer, she hands me a check for a “small sale.” I think it’s going to be $1,300, but it turns out to be $350. She says there are some other papers to go along with the money, and she stuffs them into an envelope with the check. I ask her what’s this all about. “It means you’re being cashiered,” she says.

(4) I’m with a woman about my age. She’s an artist, and we’ve just finished collaborating on something. We hug, like two hot-shot guards after a good game. Her face turns toward mine, so I kiss her. (Nothing sexual, rather one of those Hollywood party busses.) She pulls back and I say, “You don’t really like me very well, do you.” She answers, “No, not very well.” I say, “Then all this stuff about being buddies, hanging around together, isn’t any good.” “No,” she replies, “it just never worked.”

I dreamt the first next to this guy on the plane. He sported fashionably long hair, faded French jeans, hand-stitched leather jacket, hecho en Mexico. Actor? No. The incredibly close shave, pruned nostrils, and pink glasses make him a little too bookish. Law student or assistant sales manager. He wrote in Rauschenberg-style fast block printing with a black Pentel on a yellow legal pad. “Sort out your needs.” “Decide on the science of the approach.” “Reorganize the certainty principle.” “What do I really want from life?” “Amortize.” I dreamt another in a doctor’s office on the corner of Kaltwasser Canyon and Riverside Drive in the Valley: salmon vinyl seats, acrylic pile carpet which smelled like urine from the toy poodles belonging to the mentholated ladies waiting to be told not to eat candy in the middle of the day, and the doc himself, in a short-sleeved safari jacket, telling me it would be fifty-five bucks for the visit, X-ray, and splint. I dreamt still another in a roomy Spanish tile bar across the ersatz piazza from the museum. ’Twas empty, save for a couple on assignation, two dentists discussing ski lodge real estate, and a pair of grade school teachers. One of the teachers was married, blonde, pasty, and dowdy-to-be; the other, the one who talked, was short, Jewish, and wore a ski parka on a hot spring day. She waxed enthusiastic about a male colleague who had “great eye contact” with his class, the principal’s envy of it, and the intrigue it fomented among the other teachers. The Dos Equis spoke to me through the hole in the top of the bottle: “No wonder the world is a mess, with all this idiot yakking going on. Does talk—detergents, TV programs, budget figures, rides to work, office politics, the NEA—do anybody any good? How can anything get sorted out with this stuff repeated millionfold daily? Why isn’t there a Central Authority feeding all proposals for idle chatter into a computer and making everybody but the most deserving shut up?”

Nope. Take two steps back and look again; the vision is suddenly clear—just a texture.

Passing through Lincoln Heights, passing by Lincoln High. We used to beat those guys. Chicano schools had shorter basketball teams. They could kick my ass at futbol, though. It’s coming: Latinos, the biggest minority, soon to be the new majority. Simple justice, and probably better for everybody—substituting Mediterranean festival culture for northern European repression (you can sharpen pencils in Judeo-Lutheran sphincters). Cal Trans is excavating two lanes of freeway, and traffic crawls behind a phalanx of slow trucks. It’s like driving through a mustard gas attack with a billboard on your front bumper. I get a little tug on the heartstrings by the bilious green brick building on the corner of Fair Oaks and Union, where my studio stood for nine years. Things were simpler then: I liked the autreness of Pasadena, the silliness of 20-foot paintings on old road maps, and cocoa smog in the summers. It seemed like enough suffering at the time, but it wasn’t. Los Angeles, with its wide streets, clean cars, and big road signs, doesn’t lend to suffering. In New York, you suffer, but the relentless vitality (death throes?) of the city pushes you through it. In New York, you spend money so fast you can’t tell whether you’re soaring or sinking.

Whatever, you can’t get on the Pasadena Freeway by driving north on Main Street through Chinatown. Hard by General Lee’s restaurant, a black guy wades out into the street from a bus bench. He says, loud enough to be audible through my closed windows, “Say, hey man, wait! Stop!” His words are desperate, but not his dress and gestures. It doesn’t look like an emergency in the rearview mirror. Whew.

Speaking of New York:

—Five years ago what struck me were the boilers, real and imagined, in all the rat-infested basements. Why wasn’t the city peppered with explosions, engulfed in flames? Now I notice the accrued coats of white latex paint, clogging the crenelations of decorative molding and setting off keyholes like a harp seal’s nostrils. Door knobs and light switches are albino chianti bottles; the bathroom door has gained a full half-inch on all sides. Nothing closes tight.

—It costs so much for so little, you have to reorder your life. Good friends, good conversation, tasty dinner parties, the ballet, and vernissages become very important because it’s absolutely hopeless to wish for a shiny car with no dents and a dichondra lawn. You pay ten or twenty dollars for shared hors d’oeuvres and a bottle of wine in a Greek restaurant to melt the oppressiveness of the street. You know in a couple of hours it’ll be over, and you’ll have to get back to work, but you accept it, and know another golden moment will come again soon. You know you won’t have to wake up in Fresno. Compulsory civilization.

—In a creaky loft with an inclined ceiling in a dreary SoHo fortress, granola cookies, half gallons of domestic burgundy, and artists’ camaraderie almost carry the day against cold and granite, crime and trash, peeling and overpricing.

—A guy in a Rastafari hairdo says as long as we’re standing around taking a coupla hits off his dope, we might as well take a look at the dirty movie. He projects it from the cluttered kitchen table against the nearest wall; the image, thrown from an ancient cast iron Bell & Howell, is about the size of a post card. The film is entitled Varieties of Love, and is a sexual encounter between two women. It was shot in North Hollywood, where it’s not snowing and parking is easier.

—Five artists stand in the snow looking up at a building reportedly for sale: $180,000 and $100 per month per floor maintenance. There’s a tiny park in front of the building. “Look,” says one of the women, “count the trees.”

—The artist from upstate, who comes to The City at least once a month, says, “In New York, things come up new instead of recycled. You don’t just read about things in the newspapers and wonder when they’ll get to you, with some of the gloss removed, in the boonies. You live in constant anticipation of the real thing.”

—Digging the van out of the snow, with a shopping bag lady giving advice, I feel so inexplicably good from a few days in New York, about my paintings back home, I don’t give a damn about missing the plane.

I ask my son if he sees anything special in the di Suvero sculptures being installed—insofar as we can see via PBS—in the Tuileries. “I see a lot of physical labor in it,” he says, looking up from his Fender Mustang and a Credence Clearwater Songbook, “but does it have any poetry?” I think so, of course, but then, I’m brimming with envy. Di Suvero commits his entire life to vast projects requiring Herculean amounts of material and energy, while I maintain—only partly due to an idea of purity in painting—an ordinary room filled with ordinary canvases of an ordinary size. I know, however, a 20-foot Ken Noland comes nowhere near an over-the-couch Francis Bacon. Deep down, I know if I were a better/truer artist, I wouldn’t be so needled by this. And I wouldn’t be so irritated by beady-eyed carnivores in the checkout line or airbrush Hawaiian murals on freeway vans. I wouldn’t be so attracted to the idea of Inexorable Laws of Painting. I wouldn’t wonder why paintings always seem to come out in the middle, why every last fared angle, disparate proportion, murky impasto, and adjusted color isn’t quite the cat’s ass.

Then—whiplash!—keep the faith, art within the rectangle, hone it down, play for the long haul. Slowly, I close my eyes until the lashes mesh and I can see only a glimmer of the light on a window sill. I pretend I’m a robot probe landed on Jupiter, and ask myself what could I deduce, seated at the computerized enhancer console back at JPL, about life on this planet. What we need is a computer-enhancer to clarify paintings before the cacophony sets in. Why not just not bother with paintings and go on to something else? Because everything else comes with the cacophony built in. Nothing else but paintings gives you such precious distance along with the beauty.

Well, if paintings are so damned profound, why don’t they satisfy those appetites which compel writing?

PRO: Because paintings are art, not spleen, not tracts. A good cobbler doesn’t make shoes to vent diaristic or social comment impulses, but shoes which rather serve walking well. If I’m hung over, or my cousin has just bought the farm in Alaska, or I’m pained by the exploitation of garment workers, I can’t expiate those feelings in paintings or shoes.

CON: Class consciousness and personal hang-ups are not equivalent. Besides, if you elevate yourself to neo-Marxist post-formalism, you’ll be able to satisfy your social conscience and hang the therapy on the wall at the same time.

REBUTTAL: That’d only work on a Woody Allen type who’d gone to a fancy school, felt guilty about his parents, and constantly telephoned his older brother, a brilliant nuclear physicist in Ann Arbor, about his sex problems and mania to escape New York.

SURREBUTTAL: Isn’t that what art and life are about: dealing directly with the little black pit in the middle of your soul (which you, as a middle-class artist, at least have the choice to exorcise), and indirectly with those that the System has dug in the souls of everyone else?

LAST WORD: Just because the problem of what a fuzzy edge means painted next to a straight edge seems inconsequential next to the imprisonment of political dissidents and the polluting of the Columbia River, doesn’t mean the consideration has ceased to exist. And, come the millennium, it just might prove to be more important.

Once, I sat in a high plastic tavern overlooking the waves crashing on the ocean side of the San Francisco peninsula, trying to explain the terrible beauty (or, the beautiful terror) of Sisyphusian abstraction to a team of major post-formalist artists, a famous Feminist and her assistant, and the art director of a commercially Leftist magazine. I said that at the end of the class struggle the problems of being, consciousness, and art would remain. Nonsense, they answered, to a person. My Romantic malaise, they said, was simply a symptom of watching white male power in decline; when I learned to surrender that power, I’d feel much better, they said. Later, in another locale, the wife of a grid painter added dereliction of duty to the charges; she said her husband and I were, by insisting on estheticizing little corners of canvas, copping out on our responsibility as artists to see to it that the future does not fall into the icy hands of Morlockian technocrats. I replied that my tiny contribution to the future, albeit temporarily unsupported by the rhetoric of political correctness (why are there no right-wing political artists, no Robert Conquests of xerography and video?), could only be to sustain some semblance of good art. Hard as it is to draft into legislates, you need at least an oscillating definition of good art. Otherwise, the Revolution is better served by nurses and gunmen who’ve relinquished the conceit of calling themselves artists.

The grid painter, who tacked up a photo of Agnes Martin in his studio, paints whiteish figurations on linen, and I think his work is very good. (I thought it was very good even before we stayed up and drank, confessing mutual obsessions, and he told me he started painting in his Army barracks, to keep from going bonkers.) Later, at a lecture, I encountered a curator in the audience and told him about this very good painter. The curator said he’d heard of the painter and also thought the paintings were very good. “But I don’t see the point of painting like that way out in the boondocks,” he said.

Still later, on a desultory Saturday afternoon, making one of my infrequent rounds of the galleries (for someone supposedly living for art, I’m strangely reluctant to go look at it), I found a dealer sitting outside his gallery door. He told me a story, possibly apocryphal, about Jasper Johns, who saw a reductive hard-edge painting at a Los Angeles collector’s home and asked her who did it. Guess, she said. Johns replied he had no idea, but that he could tell from the painting’s scruffy execution it was done by an old guy who really knew how to paint. Some kid, he said, wouldn’t have had the guts not to slick it up. The painting was by John McLaughlin. The dealer also said that, by contrast within being excellent, Ellsworth Kelly is “the perfect Florentine painter.” I don’t know what that means. Perhaps it means: “I’m driving my boyfriend’s car/But I’m not driving it far.”

Another artist is giving a slide lecture in the auditorium of the art building of a small, expensive, midwestern liberal arts college. He hails from the area, has hit it big in New York but prefers, for the moment, to remain here. He has a good haircut, wears trendy baggy pants and a peasant shirt, and exhales Camel smoke through a handsome beard. On screen right is a slide of a “new image” painting, on screen left, like a bowling score on league night, the artist’s hand writes an accompanying text. The guy next to me says, “Have you ever noticed it’s the words which set up the pictures, and not the pictures which set up the words?” I reply that it reminds me, not unpleasantly, of a sophisticated children’s book—fey, deadpan writing on one page, and an image surrounded by a lot of inert space on the other. I wonder about “new image” stuff. Is it obsession or strategy? Is it a genuinely distant-drummer sensibility, capable of leading us up a better path, or is it backbench heckler art, whose primary virtue is nudging the mainstream toward honesty?

A long time ago, in a college art history seminar taught by a little woman who reputedly came to California because she’d witnessed a Mafia execution back East, the issue was raised: “If the government were to subsidize artists, what criterion would best separate the legitimate, deserving Jackson Pollocks from the fake dribblers?” The professor’s own suggestion seemed best: “Put punch clocks on the studio doors. Charlatans, malingerers, and no-talents won’t stand being alone with themselves.”

I sure wish I had the balls to be dyspeptically weird, to hate things out loud, to take crazy, half-baked, unprincipled, vacillating stands on pointless questions, to pee in somebody’s fireplace. But, Your Honor, I’d also like to become a licensed manufacturer of baubles-for-the-rich, with a palatial studio and a baronial wine cellar. I want Zuni baskets on plexi coffee tables; I want glossy works by other artists—not trinkets traded for, but goods bought retail. I want to be a hard-assed entrepreneur, impervious to any signals but opportunity and profit. And I want to do it without living in a sixth-floor walk-up and slogging through drunks and rats.

But how to come up with the scratch? Say, fifteen hundred, month after month. Close to three grand in gross sales, and what dealer can guarantee you that? (I said to a dealer, jokingly, “Do you think my future’s in Texas? Maybe I should do a marketing survey, like the famous Stanford one which told Disney to locate his Land in Orange County instead of Burbank. I can see it now, the tag line of an MBA’s considered report: ‘We recommend that the subject relocate in Dallas.’”)

Looking at twelve paintings leaning up against the wall the other day, six more or less done and a half dozen in the works, I figured I’d invested perhaps $500 in paint and $500 in lumber and canvas. I picked up a supplies bill for $200 and said, “Boy, that’s a lot.” Then I said, “The hell it is. Guys with power boats on Lake Havasu dump $200 on a weekend’s gasoline—just for a hobby. You should be spending $500 a month.” How true. An artist with a rent/lights overhead of $700 a month in New York, who pays $30 for a decent restaurant dinner, stands a better chance of coming up with something chewy, and is automatically worth more than any state college ninny paying $40 a month for the unused storeroom over Walgreen’s. You could make the cutoff for the Whitney Annual along that line and not decapitate too many good artists, or inadvertently authenticate too many bad ones.

Not too much easier in L.A. A friend who lives and paints in a big loft and makes his living as a union scenic artist in the television studios told me, “I worked an average of 47 hours a week last year, made $30,000, and have absolutely nothing to show for it.” Toting up my stats for the hawkeyed accountant with the cramped handwriting in Thousand Oaks who annually bails me out of this, I find a ghastly gross gross of 45K staring me in the face. Out of which I made monthly payments of $225 on the house, $125 on the construction loan for her studio, $100 property tax on the combine, $200 for my studio, and $15 for an adjacent parking space. What a lotta bread to go through just to be moderately happy several hours a week living like a $500-a-month pauper in a partially rehabilitated garment district sweatshop.

A motorcycling watercolorist, whose paintings I praised in print, asked me why I bothered with artcrit. For the money, I said. Bullshit, he answered, you could make a watercolor in half the time it takes you to write an article that would sell for twice as much. Maybe you can, I said. But I also thought: he’s right. It takes a yard and half a day just to keep me even. A $300 artmag essay that takes more than two days to write is a loss leader. I’ve priced myself out of the goddamned market: (Then there’s the work. Those pastel splashies used to sell, but I “evolved” away, as they say, and can’t go back.)

When I was a graduate student, we used to talk about teaching jobs; when I was a young pro, we used to talk about the size of studios and how large/hard we worked. Then it was dealers—ones who really “hustled” for you. Now it’s all about buildings: gather a quarter mil, form a corporation, move in a French restaurant on the ground floor to subsidize your mortgage. (Sometimes I tell myself that rich artists are probably unhappy. Bobo Rockefeller was unhappy, but most people working in coal mines would rather suffer Bobo Rockefeller’s brand of unhappiness.)

Although I need the invites, the bucks, the second-echelon star turns, and, frankly, the human contact, the “gigs,” like the legs, will probably go first. The body won’t tolerate it anymore. No more night flights, it pleads. No more reading for two hours, sleeping fitfully for three, shaving in the airport john, and facing student questions on four cups of commons coffee and a cellophaned Danish. Hey baby, the brain objects, this is the play-offs. What you just endured was only the regular season—82 games to screw around a little and still make the semifinals. Now it’s four outta seven. Lose and you’re down one with the homecourt advantage against you. No slowin’ down now! (Lying in bed under a quilt in a guest room, sleeping in my clothes because of the cold, I know I’m not tough.)

Why, it’s been asked, would anybody with such alleged breadth—a glib, semiencyclopedic knowledge of California art since Double-U Double-U Two—want to boil it all down to white formalist paintings with broken rings? Au contraire, why would anybody with a hand to hold a brush want to run around pimping for other people’s art? Perhaps the respite: breathing is easier at colleges, preferably small, comfortable liberal arts schools. Is there still time to buy a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches and occupy an endowed chair in Comparative Lit at Tufts? (Advisory conduct: (1) Do not talk about mutual friends teaching at other places. (2) Do not talk about what it was like back in the art department where you first started out. (3) Do not talk about the outrageous drunken behavior—however occasional—which supposedly set you apart from the nerds who’re still there. (4) Go ahead and say shitty things at the symposium—everybody needs the fresh air.)

Is it being a part-time traveling design salesman which permeates and distorts my view of the “regions”? I cannot look upon outlying towns without horror. (To neither heaven nor hell will I go upon shuffling off, but, imperfect blend of candor and artifice that I am, to a purgatory of being an eternal telephone lineman in Moline, or a life insurance salesman in North Vancouver.) What to say to the petite Lesbian student with the creamy complexion and baggy khaki commando trousers under which, as a token of militancy, she’s letting herself go soggy in the hips, who asks if Madison hasn’t a really more supportive community for creative people than Los Angeles? (I tell her the trouble with the boonies is that you can always backslide. Whatever the uplifting, scary, jangling hit—the painting show by a 25-year-old that’s five items better’n yours, a frightening new wave of violent video art, or the barroom conversation proving you’ve been all wrong about Minimalism—you can always sink back into cozy streets, a low crime rate, a glassy Piggly-Wiggly with wide aisles, and Little League. You end up reassuring yourself that the uncomfortable “New York hit” is as unreal as the 15th century Flemish painters buried in the weathered Panofsky cobwebbed on the shelf of that curricular A & P, the college library.) What glue holds together little settlements on the edge, these badly designed, rickety suburbs where little kids in plaid jackets trundle off to school to be fed destructive misconceptions about art (e.g., it should be fun)? Maybe the adhesive used to be the peasantry, but they’ve either died off or bought RV’s and pickup trucks. I’m driving my boyfriend’s car/But I’m not driving it far.

If they were a Leisure World “Devo,” they’d be hip, this group of tourists going south from Burnaby. The guy across from me in the J.C. Penny seersucker sports jacket and thin, unelastic socks has three strips of masking tape on his carry-on: one with his name, one with his street, and the third with his chewing gum, and I’m fascinated with the pink tucks and rolls among the hair and tiny veins. He’s a monitor lizard and, in this winged cylinder hurtling our draped bodies through air, I’m a zoologist among my own kind. Or landed from Mars on a Canadian intersection: Sears, Woolworth’s, White Spot coffee shop, body shop, spare suburban houses, leafless trees, wisps of heating smoke, and the omnipresent admixture of asphalt, gravel, mud and snow. Or plunked into “the North Country,” with the sun barely clearing the hedges, loading a frozen painting into a van. Twenty-five below sans wind-chill renders my face the prow of a corvette fighting through the North Atlantic. Natives say the snow arrives in October and remains until late April, obscuring whole first stories for the duration. (The talk up there is always The City, going down to The City, to get that hit and backslide again.) Or in the middle of Illinois, where the snow suffers from acne, and the fog sets in, sliced by headlights. A mean waitress in a bar & grill frequented by guys named Tony and Louie says no more anchovies available on the pizza—just as well, since the salt would require a few extra beers to flush out. (The aftermath of the party—a table crusted with beer-bottle stalagmites nestling wet ashes—evidences little of me. With age, bitterness replaces envy, and I gauge the alcohol in advance—four, maybe five 12-ouncers at the outside.) But I still can’t tell the 4-H’ers from the Bohemian runaways from Portland. Everyone, including me, reflects a sad, putty face in the rearview mirror.

Sometimes flashes strike in the night. Standing with his silver head almost touching the mica-flecked gunnite ceiling, the Conceptual artist has just made a joke (“Do you live in the complex?” “No, I live in the simple”) to the covey of graduate students standing with their backs to the bronze fridge loaded to the gunwales with Coors. A lotta cheese on the table, big bowls of Fritos, and the punch is guaranteed lethal. In the corner, a young female student dolls the visiting painter from New York; at intervals in his dissertation (what it was like in the old days, et al.), she hikes her slit skirt back over her knee and leans forward to let nipples like Derringers punch the silk blouse. I think: I’d like to have a tenured job in a big university away from the urban centers; I’d like to remodel a Victorian tract house, adopt a couple of kids and overturn a couple of Big Wheels (faded, so the molded spines show through the orange plastic) in the driveway; I’d like to shop at the K-Mart, take the 4WD to the desert on weekends, and play office-hour guru to a student following. No one would want me, anyway. Sioux Falls, don’t call when I’m lonely. Dr. Strangelove, keep that gloved hand down! (Every art academic tells himself he’s a pariah because he doesn’t harbor administrative ambitions. He tells himself he doesn’t want to be chairman or dean, he just wants free time to struggle with his muse in the studio. Then he sits around with all the other don’t-want-to’s who convince each other, between cashing paychecks and mailing off slides, they’re mavericks, too.)

Back home in the slide library, as I slip les diapositifs into clear polyethylene envelopes, I look over to another light board where an art history graduate student peers down into a row of mounted film fragments, taken on faith, I suppose as reasonable replications of the original art. Here we are in Rectangle-land—slides, tables, shelves, desks, books, and an occasional actual painted picture. If there were not 500 years of easel painting loaded with art-historical incunabula stuffed into the Art Bulletin and several thousand careers of art referees (“I calls ’em as I sees ’em”) at stake, and you asked a prudent person to describe a genre of objects from which would best ooze the feeling/message secreted there by an artist, it certainly wouldn’t be this dusty junk. It wouldn’t be enshrined in neo-Romanesque lecture halls, reinforced concrete studio buildings with stainless steel sinks and racks of stretched canvases under fluorescent lights. It probably wouldn’t have anything to do at all with Inexorable Laws of Painting.

Up pops the Devil: “Why don’t we just close down all the college art departments, period? No more sightless, glazed students forming a convenience pool from which is extracted a minuscule percentage of fetal careers, no more subsidized post-formalist tyros with righteous causes hothoused in the student union and encased in jargon as self-congratulatory as another iconographical janitor’s, and no more slouching, hulking old wrecks in blue work shirts and Red Wing steel-tipped shoes teaching purposeless bastardizations of autoshop technology. The students don’t need it, the universities would rather not support it, and the public doesn’t understand it. You oughta get on a CAA panel and tell ’em to just get the fuck outta the biz.” But, but, but, but . . .

From the old guard: “Art is not separate from the mainstream of intellectual and cultural life; it should be taught hand in hand with the rest of the liberal arts, in the universities! We shouldn’t deprive the whole student body of the humanizing influence of art!” From the new guard, those Aamco franchises of polite revolution: “Yes, we understand! And we’ve just gotten rid of the object-oriented, handicraft courses and faculty you’re talking about! Now it’s forward into Navy gunner manual graphics, mimeographed texts, and captioned photographs!” No! No! No! Disperse! Leave the studios clean for the engineering classes.

Killing time in my studio before the critic has to catch his plane to New York: he strolls around, looking at the paintings, as I drone on about malaise. “You know, it’s pretty well set,” he says. “You’ll have been an interesting painter who was also an interesting writer, with a reputation submerged in your critical activities. When you’re dead, some doctoral candidate will shuffle through this stuff for a dissertation and say, ‘You know, this guy wasn’t a bad painter at all.’ But you’ll be dead and you won’t derive any benefit.”

I think of the “secret” collages, waiting for posthumous discovery—“Did he do those?” Perhaps, within the cornucopia of the Los Angeles Sunday Times’ “Calendar” section—among its reams of advertisements for stereo components, endless gossipy essays about movies in the making, rock criticism embalmed in the pomposity of an aerospace annual report, and lorgnetted letters protesting the seating policy at the Civic Light Opera—on its “Art News” page, will be a short notice:

Ramona Fishbein, graduate student in the History of Art at Gridley College’s Center for Contemporary Studies, is preparing a catalogue raisonné of the semi-pornographic and (allegedly) deliberately jéjeune collages of the late local dauber Peter Plagens, who died last month in a boating accident on Lake Havasu.

(“Calendar” goads me like the “Home Magazine” section of the same paper goads most everybody else—the ones who lust after hot tubs, Anthony pools, converted barns in the Santa Ynez Valley, Kovacs lamps, Creative Playthings, Peruvian throw pillows; the ones who not only want that shit, but think they gotta have it to perform more effectively as CPA’s, Subaru salesmen, or alternative school teachers. “Calendar” holds out the bait of fame instead of goodies. Oh, fame’ll get you goodies [I’ve never been to Ma Maison or l’Orangerie, so I wouldn’t know a good table from a greasy duck], but what’s important is that fame makes your statement count. What you don’t notice, however, is that, save for Jane Fonda and The Rolling Stones, it’s a new roster every three months.)

The curator wants to do a painting show with me in it. She’s got one artist in mind (I don’t much care for the work) and asks me to recommend another. I do, and she goes out to see his stuff. Later, she tells me that although his work “should be shown” (code for not too crazy about it), she isn’t getting “good vibes” about the show, and has decided not to do it. I wish my opening quibble about being too old and too good to be in another groupie had been more forceful. The dealer says the art consultant had dropped by and picked out a few pieces, none of which was mine. Don’t you like him? the dealer asked. Yes, the consultant answered, but his work isn’t colorful enough for our clients. Later, the dealer asks me if I can bring in a couple of earlier, brighter works. I say yes. (What pisses me off is that when the crunch comes, clients don’t want works of art. They don’t want a work which says something, except perhaps, “See how much I look as real as a photograph.” They want decoration, pattern, surface, visual elevator music.)

The other dealer, that Saturday afternoon, said he went to see an Avedesian show of painted styrofoam objects at Elkon. It was a rainy day and no one—literally no one—was in the gallery, and nothing had sold. Four blocks away, he went into the building housing Leo Castelli uptown, where Jasper Johns was opening a show of paintings on paper. The receptionist at the foot of the stairs told him not to bother going up. “It’s wall-to-wall people and you won’t see a thing. Besides, every picture was sold in advance.” The dealer retreated to the Madison Avenue Pub, where he pondered the fire-and-ice fates of two deserving artists of the same generation—one gobbled up sight unseen and the other right down the toilet. “Four blocks apart,” he sighed, “oversubscription and total neglect.”

The touchstone that artists might share with their brothers and sisters in the factories is: how much longer can I stand to work on the line? Oh, everybody says he could stay an artist until death, and what a goddamned privilege it is just to piddle away days in the studio. But if you’re any good at all, ambitions increase, and you’re dissatisfied with therapeutic, but ineffective, handmade studio bric-a-brac. So you up your overhead to increase the clout. But the overhead makes you buy your way back into the studio—publishing, teaching, performing, selling. It must be horrible to contemplate: “I sold 30K worth of art last year and I’ve got to do it again this year. The collectors seem to be goin’ for the semi-totemic, pseudo-anthropological, shade-tree carpentered Process stuff, so I’ll give ’em some more.” “I’m driving my boyfriend’s car/But I’m not driving it far.”

The lights of your limited knowledge throw ribbons of illuminated highway across the dark landscape. (I thought of this on an airplane at night.) They cohere into direction only because the sun doesn’t shine down on everything. When it does, the wilderness stands revealed and the roads of personal passion disappear. The Mexican novelist Ramon Sender said it better: just as the sensory organs are more useful for the cacophony of inaudible sounds and invisible light they edit from perception, the mind serves us best by preventing us from knowing certain things. (Otto Rank: “The most important people of the future will be ex-artists.” [False.] Josef Albers: “We are not looking at art. Art is looking at us.” [True.])

It’s been a helluva long time—possibly ten years—since my life was open-ended, since I could take as long as I wanted, since I could just work until it was done. I hardly ever have a full day clear, and if I do, it quickly fills with the curse of useful errands which must be run. Being in the studio, tinkering with things as they come up, seems to me an indulgence worthy of Babel.

Sometimes I go down to the architecture library and pull books off the shelves and sit and leaf through them for a couple of hours. I would like to have a grant from the public tit to stay an entire year and read everything I can. I’d come in every morning, 365 days, with a notebook and a cup of coffee, and record ideas as they wafted up from the pages and filtered through my brain. At the end of a year, I’d read through the notebooks and try to decide if this art business is worth anything, after all. Ghosts of Pollock, Newman, and Rothko, my ass.

. . . perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on. 1

Aw, g’wan with ya.

Peter Plagens



1. Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable, New York, 1958, p. 179.