PRINT Summer 1985

An Art of Regret

QUITE A WHILE AGO I wrote a long article on the work of Brice Marden that for various reasons never got beyond a third draft, and was never published. The Marden was to be my first long piece and presented multiple difficulties, not the least of which was that in 1972 John Ashbery had written an important and beautiful essay, “Gray Eminence,” that established a critical vocabulary for his work. Not only would I have to come up with a different scheme, something that would perhaps surpass the Ashbery, but I was dealing with an artist whose work seemed by its self-determined limits to preclude iconographic analysis. I selected Marden’s “Annunciations,” 1978. In the first draft I found myself mired in an opaque lagoon of boring explication. Readers, were they to follow in my text the mathematical progression of the colors in the series, would’ve been driven slowly but surely mad. In other words I thought that I’d have to read a lot into the paintings (what can one honestly say about a few colors?) only to discover them rich with information. The entire series was based on a scholarly text and it turned out that through their color sequences, their relation to early Renaissance pictures, and the painter’s use of color symbolism, the “Annunciations” were in a very real sense representational.

Of course, of all Marden’s work the “Annunciations” are the most obviously and intentionally allegorical, and permit an unforced descriptive approach. I discovered that I’d been unnecessarily overwhelmed by the apparently daunting task of saying something intelligent about them. The usual formalist approach that I’d found so forbidding (and incomprehensible) in Marden’s press book was completely off base and dealt only with the surface appearance of the work. He’d been superficially conjoined with his contemporaries. His were not cold analytical works; they were evocations of mood, of feelings, and I discovered finally that I must deal with them subjectively, emotionally, and not intelligently. In the second draft, therefore, I approached the subject from the avenue that seemed to allow the least possible access. The major thrust of my argument was a sort of “what makes the Mona Lisa smile” theory. This projective approach, the Hendrik Willem van Loony, where speculation on the painter’s or the sitter’s mood replaces fact (haughty lady, obviously aristocratic, in an unguarded moment of revery, to me seems to have just the same smile that Leonardo put on every face), allowed a poetic approach to the very poetic paintings of Brice Marden.

Anyway, the piece was subsequently withdrawn from publication for personal reasons and no longer exists in any complete way. The manuscript has been lost. It was to have been my first long essay; it was overambitious, overwritten, and truffled with mots, but it did contain what would become my criteria of discernment and bits and pieces of it reappear in cannibalized fashion in everything I write. My approach was occult, trusting my intuition by keeping myself in an almost trancelike state before the subject.

This rather lengthy introduction to Bill Rice’s paintings will I hope explain to the reader my angle of attack. I find great similarities in, forgive me, Brice and Rice, not only structurally but in their approach to their work: the sublimity of the address to the canvas, the limited output, the long brooding periods in contemplation of the work, the infinitely slow process of refinement where the artists (or more clearly the artists feelings) seem to penetrate the work until the scream or sigh or whatever it was has become embedded in the layers of paint—the end result being a fetish, a gris-gris or, as Marden denies putting it, “A magical object.”

My initial reason for writing about Marden had been partly that it was a tremendous challenge to deal with such enigmatic pictures, of course, but more that it was imperative to reemphasize the importance, the durability of his work at a time when it could easily have become if not trendated or actively kicked out of fashion then relegated to a position of a dignified neglect. This is no less true now. Bill Rice’s work is, on the other hand, undocumented. It’s an almost unheard-of coup for a full body of extraordinary work by a mature artist to have remained so long in protective obscurity. In a sense the critical problems encountered in dealing with these two painters are a similarity of opposites: if Marden’s ostensible lack of subject could falsely expose him to the charge of irrelevance, then Rice’s subjects could lead to the mistaken relegation of his work to the insignificance of curiosa. But really what I think these two men’s works have in common, and the big point of the unpublished Marden essay, is that because of their personal investment in the work, one could almost say through the transubstantial mystery when something is not what it appears to be, it just doesn’t matter what the paintings look like. The emphasis of most of Marden’s critics on surface, look, color, and who knows what falsely allied him with the bulk of Minimalism; I don’t want to make the same procrustean argument, or falsify what’s at most a superficial resemblance in these two artists paintings. While both painters share an emphatic preoccupation with the grid and with patiently built close-color harmonies usually at the deep end of the value scale, I find it more interesting to pursue their equivalents and precedents in terms of the poetry that can be correlated to the paintings.

I find it fascinating to trace the interdependence of poetry and painting. This century especially contains a poetic tradition securely tied in with painting, whether in poetry based on painting (the usual case) or by a reverse order of dependence, in Surrealism for instance. The subject is almost inexhaustible, but the poet who comes to mind first—a grandparent of reductive poetry, and the most important formative influence on the poets whose work seems consonant with that of these two painters—is William Carlos Williams. His poems are stripped of commentary, of metaphor, of simile, of almost all the usual clues that steer the reader toward emotion. By this suppression the simply stated information in his poems acquires weight and dignity. Information without emotion operates according to the principle that words truly felt, written with exactitude, can through some occult principle reduce the reader’s own interpretation of a word. A poet’s responsibility is to limit the possible implications of each word.

Now, if without forcing the issue we can equate our two painters with their corresponding poets, an interesting case could be made for Robert Creeley as the poet who best could parallel Brice Marden, and to give as it were son to Bill Rice’s lumière, John Wieners would be the poet of choice. In direct line of descent from Williams, Creeley, with concentration of thought and straightness of address, is still the most Modern of poets—or let’s say seems the most Modern, perhaps because his poetry so directly lines up with the primary painting of his contemporaries and cronies. This is a poetry of manliness and discretion, written, as Marden paints, and as Creeley titled his most famous poem, “For Love.” John Wieners poetry, on the other hand, deviates from the direct Williams descent. His is the only poetry written like a saxophone solo and it takes us to places no other poet has dared. Bill Rice’s painting inhabits these same dark corners of the heart, and, less covert than Marden’s, gives away much more. Like Wieners’, his is a knowledge of which most would prefer to remain in ignorance, relegating it to almost Olympian obscurity.

When I introduced Jean-Michel Basquiat in these pages in 1981 I carefully sidestepped the issue of race. I never once mentioned the fact that he is black. If a painter is black it’s always noted as if to draw attention to its exceptionalness, and this has the effect of making the work marginal. I didn’t want Basquiat to be dismissed as a “black,” i.e. “folk,” artist. Of course, to really do his work justice I would’ve had to deal with the subject of negritude, a subject inseparable from the work, but I reasoned that the most effective sales pitch was to sneak him in as just another artist, in effect making him pass. But now it’s not all that pleasant to be white. Bernhard Goetz took care of that. I was walking in Bill Rice’s neighborhood the other day when a panhandler called me “Goetz.” I’m the same age and to someone not overly sophisticated in the nuances of Anglo physiognomy I probably look like him. This is not the only time I’ve been called Goetz in the street, bringing home the infamy of Goetz and his greatest crime—oh, not that I’m insulted in the street, used to that, but Goetz has further torn the patched-up fabric of our tired old city. Since all white men look alike and the heart isn’t always visible, I can’t but wonder if Bill Rice, this man who almost exclusively paints black men, or more specifically a sexual confederacy of black and white men, is known to carry a black heart in his pocket. Rice lives across the street from a men’s shelter, and the sidewalk in front of his house, pullulating with blacks just released from jail or the madhouse, is a great place to find racist proof if that’s what you’re looking for. People who harass you are more visible than those who mind their own business. On Third Street one civilization dents another, and in these side-of-the-road casualties of White America Rice has found the source of deep and resonating beauty.

By the same token, to play up a painting’s homoerotic content is a sure way to undercut it. Such revelations destroy artists careers. Walt Whitman actively denied that his work contained any inversion even though some of the most famous of his poems are as queer as pink ink. He knew that such a revelation would destroy his laureate status and his effectiveness in general. Things haven’t changed; no poem by John Wieners has ever appeared in The New Yorker. I am tempted to say that any sex in a painting can lead to its dismissal (these are not the ’60s yet), but then I think about Eric Fischl and Balthus and so I guess it is OK if it’s fashionably suburban (read ’50s) or contains peach-cheeked little family dramas and not big black queers. But Rice’s career isn’t important. The paintings are. He’s lived so long without any recognition. The paintings are there, and always will be, to show us if not the way then a way. They will hum on the walls of the museum of the future, the power of love holding them up to the light of infinite day.

It must be borne in mind that whatever I write about Bill Rice’s art is entirely my own invention. I learned early to disregard painters’ remarks about their own works. Brice Marden on the subject of Giorgione is illuminating but I find his comments about his own work murky. Whatever talk Rice and I have had about his painting has been perfunctory. I barely know the man, and he’s far too erudite and pleasantly companionable to push a personal issue with. Then again his work is personal in a way that inhibits interrogation. I would feel puerile in the pursuit. But I can create a painter’s role, like an actor, for his works. Some kind of characterization must be created for the man who would paint such pictures and become the vehicle for such feelings. These pictures are an extension of the artist’s need to see them; they are painted because they’re not there. To surround oneself with a fetish, an obsession manifest, is a motivation of naive or amateur art. It involves a disregard for the commercial possibilities of the work, surely an amateur’s angle. When a painting is approached like a lover there is no room for deception and the result is true, must be, or the painting is a failure. No one can spend as many years as Rice does perfecting one canvas unless the goal is fidelity. It is paradoxical to spend so much time refining the fleeting images that one has momentarily glimpsed through an open window, as if seeking to keep the dust from settling on a scene that will haunt one through life. Truth, in short, can elevate a painting to ecstatic and cult significance. Pathos is the rarest and most elusive quality a work of art can possess. It’s what distinguishes a Crucifixion from a pinup. Just as Christ’s mortal suffering was relieved by His divinity so does the man in the Rice drawing who sits on the end of his cot in the men’s shelter, although bereft of everything else, still have his magnificent penis as hanging proof of his superiority over the white man.

Rice has made a life study of black men and dark-skinned Latinos in the city around them. He is the greatest living painter of the city, and in his painting there is no city other than New York, black New York. As a white man there are parts of black life to which Rice must always remain a spectator. The fact that he could never himself be black, no matter how closely or for whatever amount of time he is allowed access to these mysteries, gives his paintings their almost palpable sense of loss. In this role the painter must ultimately find himself alone, losing these men to other black men or to women.

Edward Hopper must be gotten out of the way here. Hopper’s characters are caught up by their isolation in an abandoned city. The lives of Rice’s sitters, no matter how poor, are full. The man standing in the window smoking a cigarette has someone waiting for him in the next room. The loneliness in these paintings is the painter’s loneliness, the distance that separates him from the paintings. The work is the opposite of Watteau’s fêtes galantes, but Rices relation to his paintings is the same as that of Watteau, a solitary consumptive, an invalid who painted divinely elegant and healthy couples engaged in a minuet he could never dance, or loitering on the banks of artificial lakes where the damp would have thrown the painter into a coughing fit. The parks of Watteau aren’t real parks, with their inclemencies and occasional chill, but rather a stage set whose vistas and allées are cardboard and painted drops. In the same way Rice’s New York is a Ruritania of tenements where his supreme culture, his abounding literacy, and whiteness leave him an ignorant cripple before these unemployed and illiterate gods. Both Rice and Watteau envy their subjects.

The paintings are set in the men’s shelter, in vacant lots, in alleys, in garages, in what shadows the city provides for the furtive couplings of the homeless or of those one wouldn’t take home. A small deep-viridian painting shows a man on a park bench with another figure on the ground who has his head in the seated man’s lap. This picture is the size of a Watteau and the figures are depicted in the same diminutive scale. Here is the Watteau of the dispossessed, with a livid sun throwing its light on an act that must only be performed in the dark, the dawn as welcome as Caravaggio at the French ambassador’s tennis court. The light in this painting, perhaps the most evocative of Rice’s works, has the gut resonance of organ chant. (I am remindedof John Wieners’ line, "I blew him like a symphony) This is a light the painter knows well. On this morning of regret the man on the ground administers illicit rites to, as indicated by the obsessively detailed painting in the sneaker, a compliant black man who’d rather have gone off with a drag queen from La Bamba’s if he’d had the five dollars he will probably ask for momentarily. As W.H. Auden said, when telling about relationships between two men ifs important to say who does what to whom. In these paintings it’s always the white man who is serving the black.

In Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady (1881); Ralph Touchett explains that he has music playing in his rooms not for himself but—so that passersby will think there is dancing within. Ralph Touchett is sickly and can never waltz. Nor can the men in Rice’s paintings ever be or replace Women. However, there is an anatomical substitution taking place, as in the drawing of two dark-skinned Latino boys masturbating where the boy on the right seems to have breasts, and in paintings where the white man has long hair and takes on the active, in this case female, role. There’s an envy and understanding of women in Rice’s work, and when real women appear on the stage the tempo shifts. In the painting of the black man and black woman standing like an engaged column on a fire escape they are seen from the back, excluding the painter and us from their union, keeping themselves aloof from inquiry. She is sheltered by his thick bicep, and deep quiet protects them both from the noisy wet atmosphere. Their nobility is defended in away that the painter’s love will never be. There is a fusion of sexuality and race in Rice’s work so that one becomes an allegory for the other. This is what leaves it open to criticism as sexist or racist. Any depiction of sex or race leaves one open to attack because of the very personal way these topics affect us. But however we arrive at unity it’s the unity that’s important. If a white man has to become a woman to love a black man, whatever has to be done to integrate us, whatever avenue is taken, it’s the destination that counts, having love, being together.

Rice’s art training began in the middle ’40s. The paint he builds up in thin turpentined layers has the dry siccative edges of Lee Gatch. The paintings have a ’40s size and Rice is a master in the use of the signature Abstract Expressionist format, the emphatic vertical canvas, an architectural analogue that he uses logically and effectively when painting buildings, as in his painting of a prostitute—a focal red stroke on the ever-wet Bill Rice street—who stands in the crotch of some deserted skyscrapers. His paintings of cars, to follow the same logic, are radically horizontal. The car paintings are magical, and exemplify Rice’s ability to infuse information, motor vehicles in this case, with a heavy burden of suggestion. These are not paintings of cars. They are pictures of the unseen sex acts taking place in the cars, again excluding him, activity he can only imagine, because the actors are young and he is not (and probably never was), they are black, they are Puerto Rican, and they would never have anything to do with him.

The time arrived after the ’40s and ’50s, in the late ’60s, that allowed Rice’s work to arrive at itself. Black finally meant something. It became a right, a look, a hair style that would allow him pictorial access to a large vocabulary of humanity. There is no room for the criticism that he has objectified or stolen the image or soul from his subjects. They are too well seen, too particular and well known, painted from inside. Most importantly they appear just in time. We have arrived at the paintings of Bill Rice. Who is to say what the right avenue of approach was? On a bridge beneath the yellow sky or the artificial sunlight of the night, Bill Rice got there.

Our age bereft of nobility,
How can our faces show it?
I look for love
My lips stand out dry and cracked with want
of it.

—John Wieners, “A Poem for Painters.”
NYC, 21:50 hours, 4/30/’85.

Rene Ricard is a poet.